Calving management and colostrum |

Calving management and colostrum

Professor Emeritus, University of Nebraska Panhandle Research and Extension Center
Ivan G. Rush |

Calving season is just around the corner for many spring calving ranches usually starting with first calf heifers. Hopefully, preparations have been taken care or will be soon. Calf pullers and chains or straps are clean and in working condition; supplies such as iodine, disinfectant and lubricants are available for those early calves. Electrolytes should be on hand soon in the case of calf scours. Most veterinarians feel that the proper use of electrolytes is by far the most important to restore the calf health and is in fact more beneficial than the “calf scour” or antibiotic pills.

Much is written on cutting cost, which is very important and an area we need to continue to emphasize, however just as important is keeping productivity at a high level. One of my most sinking feelings is to lose a calf at birth or a young 2 -3 week old calf. Partly because I hate to see it, but also knowing it is a calf that I have put a full year’s expense into and then nothing to sell, which hurts profitability.

This is also time to plan to have your calves to be source- and age-verified. Remember just because you record birth dates or record the day of the first calf is born does not qualify your calves to be source- and age-verified. The ranch operation must be a part of a certified program and the operation must be certified by a representative of the company or organization that is certifying the age and source of the cattle. There is a long list of companies or organizations that are available to producers. They vary in requirements and costs, so now is the time to get aligned with one you feel offers the best fits your operation. One misconception that I often hear is that you must identify the calves with electronic ear tags. Some may require electronic tags but the majority does not. Visit your veterinarian or extension specialist to gain knowledge of programs available in your area.

Each year much is written on the importance of the calf getting colostrum very soon after birth. Long-term studies have provided some excellent information on the effect of colostrum on the health of the calf throughout its life including the possibility of its effect on quality grade. The effect on quality grade may be explained as we see more data that shows that if calves are treated for sickness they tend to grade lower. Hopefully the calf will stand and nurse within an hour. This starts with a cow that is in good body condition and with excellent mothering ability. With all the science that has been developed and utilized the human cannot replace the stimulus effect that the cow’s tongue and presence gives.

In those cases when supplemental colostrum needs to be administered, it is best to milk colostrum from the calf’s dam but often this is not possible so colostrum from other sources must be administered. It is best if this comes from cows from your herd. Several ranchers will milk colostrum from cows that may have lost a calf or as in some cases very heavy milking cows and freeze for future use. Colostrum is best from mature cows as they usually have a higher concentration of antibiotics than the first milk from first calf heifers.

In the past colostrum was purchased from dairies, however, this has been discouraged more recently because of the incidence of Johne’s disease is much higher in dairy than beef herds so the risks of acquiring Johne’s disease in your herd is increased. Some dairy herds are Johne’s disease free so this would not be a concern and an excellent source of colostrum to freeze. The dried colostrum supplements have shown to slightly improve the calf’s immune system but should be used as a supplement to cows colostrum if at all possible and not the sole source of a colostrum substitute.

Some of the commercial products contain globulin proteins, which are serum function proteins to aid in developing antibiotics while others contain actual dehydrated colostrum. These have been pasteurized to aid in the protection of the Johne’s disease. I am not aware of independent data that compares the effectiveness of various commercial sources.

Colostrum can be frozen for at least a year and probably longer with out losing its viability. Many will freeze in double thickness zip lock freezer bags in quart volumes. It is recommended that two quarts be given to an 80-pound calf (approximately five percent of the calf’s weight). Colostrum should be thawed in warm water (110 degrees) or if proper precautions are taken it can be thawed in a microwave oven by using the defrost cycle on the microwave. No matter how colostrum is thawed it is important to not allow any portion of the colostrum to be exposed to extreme heat such as hot spots in the microwave or extremely hot water as heat will destroy the valuable protein antibodies.

When the calf is first born the gut lining is very thin and the cells lining the gut are open and allow direct absorption of proteins into the lymphatic system without breakdown in the gut. Once the cells in the small intestine are exposed to proteins they close very soon after passing the intact protein. This is why colostrum should be the first item fed rather than milk or colostrum substitutes. Also, large quantities should be presented to the gut at an early age to allow maximum absorption to stimulate the greatest immunity. About 75 percent of the absorptive capacity will be lost about four hours after birth indicating the importance of getting colostrum to the calf before the calf is 4-6 hours old.

Very chilled calves (body temperature below 95-97 degrees) have poor absorptive ability so if the calves are severely chilled they should be warmed up before administering anything orally. Generally if the calf is warm enough to readily nurse they are warm enough to absorb antibiotics. I know historically some may prefer to give whiskey to “warm the calf.” I suspect if the caregiver drinks along with the calf, the calf may appear to be much better by the caregiver or perhaps if enough is consumed, the calf’s health won’t be as of a great concern.

I realize that many understand the importance of making sure the calf gets a large quantity of high quality colostrum in the first few hours of birth and do a great job. Some like the convenience of mixing up some commercial product and call it good. Admittedly by some miracle, some of those calves live but it I were making a wager, I know where I would put my money.

Remember if you have cows or calves rubbing excessively they are probably carrying a fairly heavy lice infestation. Lice cost lots of money because of lower performance plus the cows tear down fences and corrals. Lice can be controlled economically and easily. Watch cow condition. If cows are extra thin, try to improve it before they calve. Best of luck in the New Year.

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