Put two calves side-by-side. Then, imagine one of them is fading into thin air. She did not get enough antibodies at birth and is a victim of passive transfer failure.

If one out of two calves sounds extreme, it’s really not too far from reality. Nationwide, 40 percent of newborn calves suffer passive transfer failure, according to a 2007 USDA dairy study. Unfortunately, that figure, from the National Animal Health Monitoring System (NAHMS), has not made great strides since the previous dairy study in 2002.

It also is a good reminder that the immune status of calves — and colostrum management — still needs more attention.

Lost potential

A passive transfer rate of 60 percent means that only six out of 10 calves will live up to their potential. The remaining four calves are more likely to fall victim to the consequences of passive transfer failure.

It is well documented that poor passive transfer results in more sick calves, reduced growth and higher death loss. See the results of several research studies at: www.dairyherd.com/calf-heifer

The simple fact is, the cost of passive transfer failure adds up fast.

Figures from a University of Wisconsin-Extension study show that the cost to raise a replacement heifer from birth to weaning averages $5.31 per day.

If a calf develops scours as a result of passive transfer failure and dies, you lose that $5-per-day investment, not to mention the value of the calf.

And the chance of her dying from scours is pretty high. The NAHMS dairy study says scours is the predominant cause of death in pre-weaned calves, accounting for nearly 57 percent of pre-weaned calf mortality.

If she survives, you are still out $14 to $15 per case of scours. That may even be on the low end, points out Sheila McGuirk, veterinarian at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The cost per case of pneumonia is even higher. “I’ve seen numbers up to $25 (per treatment case),” McGuirk says. And respiratory problems are the ones that keep on “biting” into growth rates and performance long after the problem is resolved.

A wake-up call

McGuirk can’t stress enough the need to get 4 quarts of colostrum that supply 200 grams of immunoglobulin into the calf within her first few hours of life.

Generally, though, this message is still met with apathy.

A 2008 Info Sheet from the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the purveyor of the NAHMS dairy study, clearly states that the “quantity of colostrum administered to an individual calf on dairy operations has not changed since 1991.”

More producers are checking colostrum quality than before, but the numbers are still pretty low. In 2007, just 13 percent of operations evaluated the quality of colostrum before feeding it to newborns and only 2 percent routinely measured serum proteins in calves during the first few days of life. And that doesn’t even include stats on the timing of colostrum feeding — another important variable in passive transfer.

Pre-weaning death loss has come down, but is still near 8 percent industry-wide (please see the chart at left). “We haven’t seen mortality change significantly,” McGuirk says.

You can stay part of the status quo, or you can do something to decrease mortality. Decide what areas of your colostrum and newborn-calf management programs need attention and take steps to fix them.

“We can maintain low mortality rates,” asserts Dave Fischer, University of Illinois extension dairy educator. “Sanitation and dry calving areas are a must,” he said last month during a heifer-management Webinar hosted by the University of Illinois. “We certainly will prevent a number of problems if we can start off with a good, well-bedded, well-cleaned, dry, comfortable area for the cow to calve in,” Fischer said. “Then, of course, it is going to be very crucial to have an excellent colostrum-management program.”

A surprising twist

New evidence suggests that some calves — even those fed a sufficient amount of colostral antibodies — still suffer passive transfer failure (please see the related item on page 37). The thought is that these calves may not be able to absorb antibodies as effectively as others. It might have something to do with “physiological disturbances” at birth, says Frank Garry, veterinarian at Colorado State University. Some possible causes include:

  • The calf’s metabolic state.
  • Dystocia. These calves may be less able to absorb antibodies from the gut.
  • A dirty calving environment. A dirty calving pen permits the calf to swallow manure or bedding contaminated with bacteria. This may reduce IgG absorption.