Newborn calves require special attention immediately after birth to decrease the risk of disease and death during the pre-weaning period. There is also now ample scientific evidence that disease and poor growth in calves is well correlated with poor performance during the first lactation. The most important meal in the life of the calf is the first meal. When evaluating colostrum management, I like to talk about the three T’s: TIME, TRASH and TOTAL.
Time is important for the cow and the calf. We want to harvest the colostrum from the cow as soon as possible after birth. The amount of antibodies in the colostrum decreases with time. The highest levels are in the first milk. Leaking of milk after or before calving will greatly decrease the amount of antibodies in the colostrum. Antibodies are a big molecule that must be absorbed across the intestinal wall into the bloodstream. These “holes” in the intestines that absorb the colostrum close rapidly within the first few hours of the life of the calf. After eight to 12 hours, approximately 50% of the ability to absorb colostrum is gone.
Trash is anything in the colostrum that is not healthy for the calf. If it isn’t fat, protein or antibodies, then we do not want to give it to the calf. One of the most important things for dairy producers to realize is that trash will ruin even the best-quality colostrum and make calves immediately unhealthy. Some of this trash we can see such as blood or manure. Neither of these belong in colostrum. Discard colostrum that is contaminated with blood. Make sure that udders are cleaned and free of all manure and flame off hair if needed.
The trash that is more dangerous is what we cannot see…..bacteria! While all milk contains some amount of bacteria, dangerous levels can grow in colostrum that is not handled and harvested properly. The first step is to milk clean udders only. The next step is to milk the cow into sanitized equipment as well as sanitizing anything that contacts the colostrum. Treat all of this equipment like you would your pipeline! Rinse with warm water, scrub with hot soapy water and then use an acid rinse to properly sanitize. If the colostrum will not be fed immediately, it should be cooled with ice packs then placed into the refrigerator or freezer. If colostrum is placed directly into the refrigerator or freezer, it will not only warm up the refrigerator but it takes too long to chill and allows bacteria to overgrow. Bacterial contamination is a common problem with colostrum and can easily kill a calf from “food poisoning.” If your calves are getting sick within 24 hours of birth, it is often trash that is causing the problem.
Culturing your colostrum for bacterial counts is a good way to check your trash levels. An excellent tool that all sizes of dairy farms should consider is a pasteurizer. This will decrease bacteria counts in the colostrum, while preserving antibody levels.
We want calves to receive 150 to 200 grams of antibodies in the first meal. Testing colostrum is an excellent way to evaluate antibody level. This can be done with a colostrometer or a newer technology, a Brix refractometer. The advantage of the Brix refractometer is that it uses one drop of colostrum and gives a digital readout that is not influenced by temperature. A score of 22% Brix indicates colostrum over 50 grams per liter which is good quality. Therefore, we would need to feed 3-4 liters to achieve immunity. There is almost no case where 2 quarts of colostrum would provide adequate immunity for a calf.
Almost every disease outbreak in calves can be traced to a breakdown of colostrum management. If your dairy is experiencing a scours outbreak, culture the colostrum and check the quality. Evaluating the blood total protein will enable your veterinarian to determine if calves immune status is adequate. Producers often want to reach for vaccines and medication when calves are sick; however, using your veterinarian to find out where the hole in the colostrum management is occurring can ensure that your calves have a healthy start.
Fred Gingrich is a practicing veterinarian and owner of Country Roads Veterinary Services, Inc., in Ashland, Ohio.