The importance of colostrum management

Whether a calf is destined for dairy or beef, striving to get them off to the best possible start is undoubtedly a key to success. One investment that can make a tangible difference in their future productivity is a well developed and effective colostrum management protocol. When it comes to calf health, their level of immunity is a major focus. Calves are born without antibodies to the pathogens that they will be facing within the first few days of life, and take several weeks to manufacture their own. This is why calves which receive insufficient colostral antibodies are at increased risk of septicaemia, pneumonia, scour, and mortality. In fact, a dedicated economic model published in 2016* estimated an average cost of €60 per dairy calf with an inadequate colostrum intake, and €80 per beef calf. In farms with a high prevalence of these ‘failure of passive transfer’ calves, the estimated costs increased to €95 per dairy calf and €132 per beef calf.

However, by investing in management changes, ‘failure of passive transfer’ can be prevented. In the shorter term costs are saved, by reducing the need for medicines or veterinary time, and avoiding the implications of losing a potential replacement heifer.  Whilst in the long-term by reducing the energy outputs calves spend on fighting sickness, more calories can be allocated to growth ensuring good daily live weight gain and improving production parameters such as days to slaughter, or age at first calving.

Developing your colostrum protocol

When considering your colostrum protocol, there are three major points to bear in mind; Quality, Quantity, and Quickly.

Colostrum quality is affected by a great deal. Typically, cows produce higher quality colostrum than heifers because they have been exposed to more pathogens- on a similar note, vaccination against calf diseases such as E.coli, rotavirus and coronavius, can increase quality. More complex factors, such as the metabolic state of the cow (Is she in a negative energy balance? Is she deficient in minerals, such as calcium?), and the quality of her transition management (for example, a dry period of fewer than five weeks is associated with insufficient colostrum production) also have importance. Colostrum quality can be measured, such as with a colostrometer or with a BRIX refractometer.

It is a good idea to have a store of colostrum on standby. Spare good quality colostrum can be frozen- it lasts one year in the freezer, and having readily accessible dose-sized quantities could make all the difference to a calf in need. If you choose this option, bear in mind that the antibodies are sensitive to heat and so the colostrum must be defrosted gently in warm water so as to not diminish the quality. Also consider hygiene; bacteria levels double every 20 minutes in room temperature colostrum. Tubes and bottles can be disinfected with safe sterilising fluids such as Milton, which is especially important if the equipment is also used in sick calf treatments.

Alternatives to freezing colostrum include buying in from other farms (be aware of their disease status, particularly Johnes which is readily transmitted in colostrum and milk), and powdered colostrum (be aware that the quality of different manufacturers varies considerably if in doubt speak to your vet about which products to choose).

Quantity and Quickly go hand in hand – a sturdy rule is to give 10% of the calf’s body weight  or 3 litres  as soon as possible after birth followed by another similar feed within the first 12 hours. Antibodies can only be absorbed through the gut in the first day of life and the potential for absorption decreases with every passing hour. A calf needs to suckle for 20 minutes to drink the recommended volume, many farms choose to tube or bottle feed all calves as soon as they’re on the ground, but for many this is simply not practical. Some calves are more at risk of absorbing insufficient colostral antibodies, and these can be identified for potential intervention. Specific situations can highlight potential for problems, for example heifers with underwhelming udder development, dams with poor mothering instinct, and difficult calvings with weak calves that are unwilling to stand and suck.

Monitoring success

Colostral antibody transfer can be monitored by measuring total protein in blood samples. By sampling a cohort of calves aged between one and seven days valuable information can be obtained representing the group as a whole. It is a good idea to monitor total proteins at the beginning of the calving period so that you can evaluate your colostrum protocol, and develop it as the calving season progresses.

* - Failure of Passive Immune Transfer in Calves: A Meta-Analysis on the Consequences and Assessment of the Economic Impact. Raboisson et al, 2016.

Article written by Chloe Donovan BVetMed MRCVS, in association with Dr Tim Potter BVetMed PhD MRCVS

1st February 2021

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