Calves are born with virtually no immune system, making them extremely susceptible to infections and illness.
According to Dr. Mark Sosalla, two key factors can help keep calves healthy: colostrum and navel dipping.
Sosalla is a veterinarian with Country Hills Animal Health in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. He says quality colostrum delivered within two hours of birth is his number-one priority for newborn calves.
He recommends using a Brix refractometer to measure colostrum quality. In a perfect world, he says he likes to see the colostrum pasteurized. However, colostrum pasteurizers come with their own management challenges. For instance, if the pasteurizer gets too hot, it will destroy the immunity factors in the colostrum. The same can happen when excess colostrum is frozen and reheated at too high of temperature.
Next is the issue of navel dipping. The umbilical cord is the lifeline between the dam and the unborn calf. Thus, many blood vessels lead directly from the navel to the calf’s liver and bladder. If bacteria enter the navel, they have a “straight shot” to the calf’s entire system.
That’s why navel infections become so serious. The classic symptom of a navel infection is swollen joints. However, Sosalla says hernias and other infections are also a major concern. Curing the newborn calf of these infections often requires aggressive treatments, significantly impacting the calf’s early performance.
This highlights the importance of a good navel dipping strategy. Sosalla says he recommends dipping the navel as quickly as possible. Fill a cup with a strong iodine solution and wear gloves as it can irritate your skin. Make sure you cover the entire navel area with solution. This will disinfect the navel and limit the potential of bacteria entering the calf’s system.
Sosalla says it is more important than ever to dip the navel properly as very strong iodine solutions are no longer on the market. With that in mind, he says it can’t hurt to dip the navel a second time – especially if it’s challenging to keep the calf’s environment clean.
After the navel is dipped, Sosalla says calves should be wiped dry with a towel and removed from the calving area as quickly as possible. This will also limit the calf’s exposure to pathogens. Put the calf in an individual pen with deep straw bedding. This helps the calf dry quickly and keeps it warm.
Sosalla says, in his experience, farms that have the same person take care of all the calves seem to do a great job of following navel-dipping protocols. A larger farm, where multiple people are managing the calving area, may struggle with more “protocol drift.”
With that in mind, Sosalla says every calf should be recorded with the birthing time, colostrum feeding, navel dipping, vaccinations and other relevant information. These records should also include the name of the employee caring for each calf. If you start to have sick calves, you can retrace the records, see if the occurrences are linked to one employee, and retrain that person on the protocols. Simple adjustments can have big impacts on calf health.
“It usually comes back to colostrum and cleanliness,” Sosalla says. “Those are the biggest things.”
Source: Vita Plus Starting Strong newsletter