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Create lifelong immunity starting with the newborn calf

Kelly Reed for Progressive Dairy Published on 31 August 2020
dairy calves

Creating lifelong immunity in baby calves has never been more important. A proactive approach to health, nutrition and management is a must from day one. Having a proper program in place not only improves the health of the animal, but it can also improve resilience to stress and disease.

By implementing adequate colostrum protocols, feeding a consistent diet of whole milk or milk replacer, and incorporating immune support products into the liquid ration, your calves will have the greatest chance of success.

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Proper colostrum management and feeding 

Unlike human babies who can absorb antibodies across the placenta, baby calves are born without any antibodies and rely on them being administered. Because of this, quality nutrition and management are vital from day one. A good starting point for evaluating the effectiveness of colostrum programs is to evaluate passive transfer of antibodies through measuring serum total proteins. Proven time and time again, improved passive transfer results in healthier calves. Farms with high rates of passive transfer put a huge emphasis on establishing a colostrum management program and then consistently follow their protocols. In 2019, calf experts from the U.S. and Canada updated the industry guidelines to a tiered system for adequate passive transfer. These new guidelines, published in Veterinary Clinics of North America: Food Animal Practice, are: 

  • Excellent – Greater than 40% of calves on farm with a serum total proteins (TP) greater than 6.2 grams per deciliter (dl)
  • Good – Approximately 30% of calves with serum TP 5.8-6.1g/dl
  • Fair – Approximately 20% of calves with a serum TP 5.1-5.7 g/dl
  • Poor – Approximately 10% of calves with serum TP less than 5.1g/dl.

Farms with the most success will meet or exceed these standards.

Producing high-quality colostrum and achieving these goals start with care of the dry cow, weeks before calving. We do this through nutrition, vaccines and stress mitigation, like limiting pen moves, providing heat abatement in summer and adequate bedding in winter. Once a cow calves, harvesting clean colostrum along with quick cooling and storage are key. Over time, cows will reabsorb immunoglobulins into the body; at the same time, immunoglobulins will become diluted as the cow starts producing more milk. Bottomline – for the highest quality colostrum, harvest as soon after calving as possible. The calf should be delivered in a clean, dry environment and fed 4 quarts – or 10% of birthweight – of the highest quality colostrum (brix refractometer reading greater than 22%) available within an hour of birth.

Common practices to improve success rates are measuring colostrum cleanliness and quality, and implementing colostrum supplementation or colostrum pasteurization if needed. Additionally, a second feeding of colostrum at 12 hours may improve passive transfer. Keep in mind, after about 24 hours, a calf’s gut lining allows very little to no IgG absorption. Studies show adding small amounts of colostrum to the milk or milk replacer binds pathogens in the gut and minimizes pathogen absorption. Thus our first big opportunity to help the calf in realizing her genetic potential is ensuring she receives adequate passive transfer. All of this works toward helping her reduce her chance of disease and helps create lifelong immunity.

Setting the path for success beyond day one

Calves, like human babies, thrive on consistency in their nutrition program. We want to feed them the same volume and temperature of the same product at the same time every day. Both whole milk and milk replacer can work well; at the same time, both have challenges to meeting these goals, depending on the farm’s management system. With milk replacer, it’s key to follow label directions specifically regarding water temperature for reconstitution, and to mix to the same total solids every feeding. When feeding whole milk, it’s important to monitor total solids and supplement as necessary to keep a consistent product for the calves.

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As we work toward the goal of transitioning calves from a milk-fed diet to a grain diet, all changes should be gradual, and we should not make more than one change at a time. For calves to reach their full potential, it’s important to start early and implement a calf-raising program that includes maternity and colostrum management, along with the delivery of consistent nutrition.

Even the best programs are not perfect. Immune support products can help mitigate day-to-day stress and promote optimal performance and lifetime success. Consider implementing an immune support product that is soluble in milk or milk replacer, helps to directly support the calf’s immune system, maintains gut integrity and further develops the calf into a ruminant animal. Work with your nutritionist or veterinarian to find a product that goes beyond one specific challenge, such as E.coli. Products that support the GI tract and immune system are key, so whenever any challenge comes along, the calf is better prepared to handle it. This is a great tool to not only help your calf nutrition program succeed but strengthen and protect calves.

There are going to be numerous challenges that come up along the way. Making sure you have a proactive calf program in place, along with consistent nutrition that supports the calf’s immune system, can help calves face these challenges head on, helping them thrive toward lifetime success.  end mark

Kelly Reed
  • Kelly Reed

  • Ruminant Field Technical Specialist
  • Diamond V
  • Email Kelly Reed

PHOTO: For calves to reach their full potential, it’s important to start early and implement a calf-raising program that includes maternity and colostrum management, along with the delivery of consistent nutrition. Photo by Mike Dixon.

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