Current Progressive Dairy digital edition

Immunity begins before birth

Anna Catharina Berge Published on 30 April 2013


Immunity in a healthy and strong calf begins before birth.



Producers often focus on the pathogens that create disease in young calves, but the focus needs to shift to a holistic approach in building up immunity through colostrum, nutrition, the calving process, environment and management.

Building up immunity is like building up an army’s defense against a battle that will be waged in a calf’s gut and lungs.

Inadequate defense against respiratory and intestinal infections, the most common issues responsible for the majority of disease and deaths in young calves, will affect measures of productivity throughout the animal’s lifetime.

It starts at birth
Nutrition is critical during the gestation period and has a large impact on fetal programming. Cows must be fed a proper balance of nutrients, not only to produce a healthy calf but also to maintain and regain the cow’s condition.

Proper levels of protein, energy and minerals during the second and third trimester ensures against weakened fetal development, lower production potential of the next calf crop and decreased future conception rates.


Calves will respond better to vaccines if they have the proper minerals in their feed. Research suggests zinc, copper, selenium, manganese and cobalt are critical for growth.

Colostrum and immunity go hand in hand. Using a gut health product 30 to 60 days prior to calving will address gastrointestinal health and stability and promote efficient nutrient transfer from cow to calf.

With high-quality colostrum, newborn calves will be able to implement their own immunity sooner and stronger and fight off environmental exposures.

Despite the knowledge regarding the importance of colostrum, many producers fail to ensure calves have received sufficient quantity and quality. Failure of passive transfer (FPT) remains a common phenomenon globally.

Several studies have indicated that in the range of 40 to 45 percent of U.S. heifer calves had FPT. Although FPT calves can survive, in times of stress and disease challenge, they are much more likely to succumb to disease. One study indicated that during times of heat and disease stress, 50 percent of calves with FPT died.

There are numerous studies that indicate feeding milk in place of milk replacers results in improved health and growth in calves and improved future productivity.


Meta-analysis studies have indicated that it is the energy and protein composition of milk that is of highest importance. When using a calf milk replacer, invest in one with high protein/high fat including dairy-source proteins. It is not simply quantity and composition of milk feed that influence calf health.

A recent study, where calves were fed the same quantity of milk divided over two or three daily feedings, demonstrated that calves receiving feed three times daily were more likely to enter the milking herd, calved 16 days earlier and averaged 1,135 pounds more milk during their first lactation compared with calves fed twice daily.

Environment and management
While nutrition carries a majority of the weight when it comes to immunity, the outside environment will affect a calf in many ways.

Make sure calves are born in a clean, dry environment and be aware that when calves are exposed to transportation, adverse weather conditions or other high-stress situations, they may have impaired immune responses. Stress hormones interact with most aspects of the immune system and can dramatically depress calf immunity.

Pathogens, such as enteric bacteria and cryptosporidia, can build up in a calf’s environment if calves are sick and shedding high levels of viruses, bacteria or oocysts.

heir housing environment should be cleaned regularly, and soiled bedding removed and cleaned between groups of calves. Their housing should also be well-ventilated and protected from harsh weather conditions.

It is imperative dairy producers take an active interest in the immunity of their calves. This starts with the health of the dam and the care taken with nutrition and management.

Not only will calves be able to develop an effective immune system with a holistic approach, but they will also show improved performance throughout their lifetime.

Ensuring your calves have proper nutrition, clean calving/housing environments and access to quality colostrum when they are born can help to improve health and profitability within your herd. PD

References omitted due to space but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.

Dr. Anna Catharina Berge of Berge Veterinary Consulting speaks at the 2009 Alltech Symposium. Photo courtesy of Alltech.