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5 colostrum strategies for newborn calf success

Jamie Purfeerst Cow-Calf
With calving season just around the corner, consider these tips to keep stressed newborns healthy.

It is a glorious thing when a newborn calf gets up and nurses on its own. But sometimes a calf needs a little assistance immediately after birth. If you subscribe to the philosophy of “giving a little milk replacer to tie newborn calves over until they get up to nurse and get colostrum,” consider what Brian Vander Ley has to say about such a strategy.

“That’s a bad idea all around,” says Vander Ley, a veterinary epidemiologist with the University of Nebraska’s Great Plains Veterinary Education Center in Clay Center, Neb. He spoke at the recent Range Beef Cow Symposium in Mitchell, Neb.

Why? As soon as newborn calves get that first meal in their stomach – even if it is just a small one – their gut wall begins to close and they lose the capacity to absorb the essential antibodies in colostrum necessary for immunity.

He adds, “If a calf doesn’t receive passive transfer from colostrum, it’s not protected, and those calves are often poor-doers if they survive.”

To optimize antibody absorption and immunity for the newborn calves, “A four-hour window is all we’ve got…so it’s important to kick ‘em off right,” says Vander Ley. Here are five strategies to ensure healthy calves:

Strategy 1: When calves need to be supplemented colostrum, give a full dose. “Give as much as you can immediately,” he says. If the supplemental colostrum is coming from the cow, which is preferred, milk out as much as you can to feed to the calf.

If it’s a purchased supplement, Vander Ley says a full dose should provide the equivalent of 100-120 grams of antibody to the calf. This is typically two packages, he underscores.

Strategy 2: If colostrum isn’t available from the cow, Vander Ley advises using a colostrum replacer instead of a colostrum supplement, which he calls expensive and less effective. He notes the colostrum replacer product label should say it contains “dried colostrum.”

Strategy 3: Bottle feeding is preferred to feeding the calf with a stomach tube because the suckling process fosters the rumen to close. This allows the colostrum liquid to then bypass the rumen and go straight to the intestines for absorption, Vander Ley explains. Whereas tubing a calf tends to deposit the liquid into the rumen.

Strategy 4: Managing cow body condition score (BCS) to be a 5 or 6 prior to calving results in fewer newborn calf issues, according to Vander Ley. “Cows give birth more quickly, they produce better colostrum, the calf gets up quicker and receives better antibody protection.”

He adds, “Below a body condition score of 5 and bad things start to happen.” He cites research from 2014 that indicated cows with a BCS less than 5 were two times more likely to have difficulty calving.

Strategy 5: Give special attention to newborns that had to be pulled. Vander Ley notes that the distress caused from pulling a calf can cause acidosis and/or depressed brain function in calves.

This increases the risk that the calf will not nurse on its own by four hours of age. He suggests placing two fingevrs in the newborns mouth to assess their ability to nurse. If they show strong suckling, they’ll likely be OK. But if they are weak to suckle, Vander Ley says, “There’s a 98% chance they won’t get colostrum on their own. So, go the extra step and give the calf colostrum.”

Additional Tips

  • Colostrum should be the first thing that goes in the calf’s mouth. “Never give probiotics before colostrum,” advises Vander Ley.
  • Providing cows proper nutrition and vaccinations prior to calving can put antibodies into the cow’s bloodstream that are beneficial for the calf via her colostrum.
  • Manage newborn calves to avoid hypothermia, which can cause calves to be slow and also impairs ability to absorb antibodies.
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