Farm Horizons, April 2016
A calf’s most important meal
By Starrla Cray
When it comes to keeping calves healthy, the importance of their first meal can’t be overestimated, according to Dr. Max Thornsberry, a veterinarian and dairy technical specialist with Milk Specialties Global.
“When I go look at 100 calves, I see that two-thirds of them didn’t get the optimum amount of nutrition,” Thornsberry said while presenting at the 2016 Carver County Dairy Expo in Norwood Young America in February.
After a calf is born, its mother produces colostrum (a nutrient-dense form of milk that contains antibodies to protect the calf’s immature digestive system). According to the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs, “the most important factor in dairy calf health and survival is feeding the newborn calf adequate amounts of high-quality colostrum early in its life.”
Thornsberry notes that “timing is critical” for this first meal of colostrum.
“It’s what God intended that calf to have immediately after birth,” he said, explaining that about two hours after the calf is born, the mother begins producing milk instead of colostrum.
“The longer you go, the greater the dilution,” he said.
A calf’s ability to absorb immunoglobulins also decreases quickly, and by the time the calf is 1 day old, the percentage of absorption is about zero.
In one-third of dairy farms Thornsberry has encountered, calves don’t receive any colostrum during this critical time. In another third, calves receive some, but not the full amount veterinarians recommend.
“In one-third, someone has taken the time and effort to give that calf three to four quarts of good, quality colostrum as soon as it was born,” Thornsberry said.
Taking the extra effort to ensure the proper amount of colostrum has been ingested can save farmers trouble in the long run, Thornsberry said.
“We have learned a lot about colostrum in the last 10 years,” he said, explaining that in addition to providing antibodies, colostrum contains chemical compounds that stimulate development of the lungs, prime the liver, and more.
According to the Bovine Alliance on Management and Nutrition, “a significant portion of calf mortality on US dairy farms could be prevented by proper colostrum feeding and management.”
If fresh colostrum isn’t an option, frozen can work well, too, according to Thornsberry. Colostrum can be stored in 1-gallon plastic re-sealable bags. When it’s time to use, the bag can be thawed for 15 to 20 minutes in a 5-gallon pail of warm water. The water should not be too hot, because temperatures above 140 degrees F will degrade the quality.
Thornsberry doesn’t recommend storing colostrum in a refrigerator, because temperatures above freezing can lead to pathogen growth, inhibiting a calf’s ability to absorb the antibodies.
Another alternative to fresh colostrum is milk replacer made from bovine plasma. Thornsberry said this product contains many of the benefits of colostrum, although it doesn’t have all the nutrients.
Immune protection through vaccination
After a calf’s first meal, another way farmers can protect the newborn’s immune system is through a nasal spray produced from modified live viruses.
“This tricks the calf’s immune system into thinking it caught the disease, so it develops immunities,” Thornsberry said.
He noted that the spray can be given a few hours after a calf is born, or the following day (once the mucous clears from the nasal passages). The sprays have “no negative impact” to the calf, he said, and they protect against a wide range of viruses.
Injectable vaccines are another form of protection.
“We do have vaccines that are safe for newborn calves,” Thornsberry said, giving the example of Vira Shield 6, an oil-based vaccine made from inactivated viruses.
“It has six different strains in it,” Thornsberry said.
Thornsberry said he usually waits to give a live injectable virus until a calf weighs about 300 pounds.
One tip he gave is not to shake vaccines once they’re mixed, because shaking can alter the contents. Similarly, farmers should be careful not to get too much disinfectant on the needle, because it can deactivate the vaccine. Instead of dipping, Thornsberry recommends gently wiping the needle with disinfectant.
For specific vaccination and colostrum management procedures, Thornsberry advises farmers to work with their local veterinarians, who can guide them on what is best for their particular operation.