There is no other segment of agribusiness enterprises that is so sophisticated, yet so simple as calf management.  A review of the scientific literature over the past 10 years yields literally hundreds of articles regarding management, colostrum, disease and feeding of the baby calf.  Yet thousands of calves born every day go on to live healthy, productive lives on well managed dairy farms, veal operations and calf ranches.  This article attempts to put science into perspective by offering calf managers: "I can be a more successful calf manager if I understand the principles of colostrum delivery and hygiene". 

1.     Understand and implement practical methods to feed colostrum to newborns.

Colostral antibodies are protein molecules that cross the intestines into the blood for only a few hours after birth.  After approximately six hours the gut "shuts down" and antibodies no longer move into the blood.  Those that remain in the intestines are digested as food and are probably not available to kill bacteria. Those that move into the blood stream are like the "National Guard troops"; they're floating around, ready, available and capable of fighting infection instantly when bacteria or viruses invade the calf. 

You must devise a system (how to do work on your facility with your workers) that guarantees someone feeds 4 quarts of colostrum to all newborn calves within six hours after birth. 

  • Collect all colostrum, put it into gallon containers and store it in the refrigerator.
  • Feed 1 gallon of the freshest colostrum with an esophageal feeder within six hours after the calf is born.

Write out, organize, train and monitor responsible persons to do this work day and night.

2.     Know that you cannot use second milking colostrum as a substitute for colostrum when you don't have enough colostrum to feed.

Second milking colostrum does not contain the antibody content or the protein value of colostrum.  Colostral substitutes were developed precisely for the purpose of substituting antibodies when natural colostrum from dams is not available.  While a variety of colostral substitutes are available and their effectiveness varies, their objective is to provide adequate antibodies.  But they probably do not supply the other components of colostrum - essential nutrients, growth factors, hormones, protease inhibitors, leukocytes and other essential compounds.  You must rely on scientific evaluation of the various colostral substitutes to know which to use; on-farm testing is not precise enough to determine differences between products.

  • Organize your colostrum delivery program so that you always have sufficient colostrum available to feed newborns.  With good fresh cow management, there should never be an instance where you won't have enough colostrum to feed 1 gallon to every newborn. 
  • Have commercial colostral substitutes available to use in the event there is a deficit of natural colostrum.

Don't routinely use colostral substitutes when the natural colostrum is available

3.     Recognize that hygiene, next to colostrum feeding, is the second most important principle of calf management.

The list of common pathogens causing illness and death in calves includes: E.Coli, Salmonella, Cryptosporidium, Reo and Corona viruses.  All of these originate in the environment and generally do not cause disease unless they exist at abnormally high levels or infect an immuno-compromised calf.  Keep your calving area clean. Keeping your individual calf hutches and feeding utensils clean will reduce the number of potential organisms that affect calves.

  • Keep newborn calves clean, dry and comfortable.  Be certain that the temporary staging area where you accumulate newborns over night or during the day until they are moved to the hutch area or calf barn is cleaned daily and it is dry, well ventilated and warm.   
  • Dip the naval of newborns immediately with a 7 percent iodine solution (closes the freeway bacteria use to gain entrance to the liver, kidneys and intestines).

Maintain all milk feeding equipment clean and sanitary.

Calf managers that know, understand and practice these strategies deliver healthier calves to your heifer program; improve your overall herd health and future milk production.