Back to the basics: 6 tips to get calves off to a great start

Within the first few hours of life, a newborn calf is programed to be a valuable contributor to the herd's future production potential, or a drain on resources. But many times perception doesn't match reality when it comes to the presence of scours or illness within newborn calves. To ensure morbidity isn't an issue in your herd, look to the following newborn calf management practices.

1) Quantity &; Concentration: 4 quarts of colostrum/150g IgG

Colostrum is essential for the calf to receive antibodies from its dam that it cannot yet produce on its own. Feeding 4 quarts of high quality colostrum (150 grams of immunoglobulins) helps to ensure the calf receives enough antibodies to properly develop its immune system. But industry figures suggest that at a minimum 30 percent of dairy calves in the U.S. are currently being fed colostrum classified below industry standards for IgG content; putting them at a greater risk of failure of passive transfer, mortality and morbidity. Other research shows that about 50 percent of cows have colostrum with an IgG level below 50 milligrams per milliliter, which will not prevent failure of passive transfer.

Antibody levels in colostrum cannot be visually detected and thick colostrum does not mean it has enough antibodies to provide successful passive transfer. To test for quality, colostrum should be evaluated with a colostrometer or refractometer. If maternal colostrum is not available, a powdered colostrum replacement meeting this industry standard should be administered.


2) Immediate immunity against scours: no pre-fresh dam vaccine affords equal protection to every calf

A cow that receives a scours vaccination does not directly translate into her calf receiving protection. Every dam varies in her ability to respond to a scours vaccine. Therefore the protective dose of antibody transferred from the dam into colostrum, as a result of the vaccine, also varies. In addition we often take practical measures to make the vaccination process convenient. But what is practical may not be aligned with what is biologically required for the vaccination to work. Timing of vaccination is critical, as is how the vaccine bottle itself is handled. A vaccine is compromised if it has been frozen, in direct sunlight or left unrefrigerated.

To ensure every calf receives the same protective dose of antibodies against E. coli and coronavirus, consider preventing scours with a USDA-approved antibody product administered directly to the calf. These products can be fed at the same time as colostrum, provide immediate immunity, and are available in bolus, gel tube and powder form. They also are included in some colostrum replacement and supplement formulas for one-step administration of both a general mass of antibody and specific antibodies targeting the first diseases to which newborns are exposed.


3) Time is of the essence

Even if a calf receives the correct amount of high-quality colostrum, if the timing isn't quite right protection will be reduced. The calf's ability to absorb the antibodies steadily decreases as time passes. If colostrum is fed more than 12 hours after birth, the amount of antibodies absorbed decreases as much as 50 percent. This short time period underscores why it is so important that calves receive at least 4 quarts of high-quality colostrum within the first six hours after birth. 

Also consider that within minutes after birth it's not unusual for a calf to take a wobbly nose-dive as it gets its bearings; subjecting it to pathogens from its environment. Colostrum shouldn't be delayed for any reason, as it's the primary protection from these intestinal antigens. Modified-live scour vaccines require a delay in feeding colostrum. The antibodies in colostrum inactivate the controlled dose of diseases antigen in a vaccine, exactly as antibodies bind and neutralize disease antigens in the gut. When delaying colostrum, because of an oral scour vaccine or any other reason, you are putting the calf at risk. 


4) Clean: colostrum &; maternity pen

A nationwide study of colostrum revealed that 45 percent of all samples had a total plate count of greater than 100,000 cfu per ml – enough bacteria to make calves sick. Collecting colostrum to reduce bacteria contamination is critical. In warm colostrum the bacteria content doubles every 20 minutes, so chilling immediately is imperative. 

Regular cleanings, not overstocking maternity pens and dry bedding will reduce risk of excessive pathogen exposure.


5) Equipment: Would you drink out of that?

Establishing sanitization protocols for the equipment used in the care of newborn calves is critical. Evaluate the protocols in place for sanitizing the esophageal feeders, bottles, nipples and as well as colostrum harvest and storage equipment. A hospital goes through great strides to sanitize whatever comes in contact with a newborn baby – you need to do the same for newborn calves.

6) Attention to detail

The final tip that applies to every aspect of calf raising is attention to detail. It takes a caring eye to ensure that all management practices are being focused on what is best for the newborn calf. It also takes consistency. You may have the best protocols but if they are only followed part of the time, disease outbreaks will occur. 

Do you have your best employees working with the newborns? Is there traceability and therefore accountability for following protocols? Is there a reliable recording system for calf health in place or are you at risk of under-recording calf problems? The future of your herd depends on your calf crop – make them a high priority.


For more information, contact Bobbi Brockmann at [email protected] or 515-450-2035. More information on antibody supplements can be found at: