8:27 PM EST, November 15, 2012
Soon, winter will make its unwelcome return and with it, difficult challenges when it comes to raising calves. After a reprieve last year from a couple of exceptionally harsh winters in a row, most people expect the cold and snow to return again with a vengeance.
If it does, you might want to consider these factors for the sake of your calves.
Experience tells me that there are two major things that need to be done to wean a healthy calf in the winter. Having and following a sound colostrum plan is first and foremost.
Colostrum is the first milk produced by the cow and is necessary for the calf's immune system to function properly. The positive effects of colostrum are felt by the calf well past the time she is weaned. Conversely, the negative effects from the lack of adequate colostrum intake are likewise felt well past weaning.
All calves are born with an incompetent immune system. Without the priming immunity the calf receives from colostrum, the newborn is susceptible to a host of infectious diseases.
It is well accepted that larger calves like the Holstein require a gallon of colostrum at birth in order to achieve a minimum level of protection. The high volume is necessary because colostrum from dairy cows contain a lower concentration of antibodies (proteins that help prime the immune system) than beef cattle.
In most cases, a full gallon of colostrum at birth will give adequate protection to the calf. Jersey calves need at least two to three quarts at first feeding.
Some calves will drink the whole gallon of colostrum on their own, but many will not. In most cases, I recommend that calves be given the entire gallon through an esophageal feeder tube. Don't give the calf the opportunity to turn down that last quart; just tube it.
Yes, if calves get a full gallon of colostrum at birth, they might get a touch of diarrhea the next day. Colostrum has a laxative effect, which actually comes in quite handy for the calf who is trying to expel that nasty, sticky meconium.
Don't concern yourself with a little bit of milk scours but recognize that a gallon of colostrum is going to help prevent that bad case of E. coli diarrhea.
There are about as many ways of feeding colostrum as there are farms. I have seen colostrum fed as fresh, chilled, pooled, frozen and even colostrum replacer. The undisputed best is fresh and here's why.
Fresh colostrum, because it doesn't have to be stored for any length of time, doesn't overgrow with bacteria. Bacterial overgrowth in colostrum can be a death sentence for a calf. The same mechanism that allows for antibodies to be absorbed intact into the bloodstream from the calf's gut also allows bacteria to be absorbed. Bacteria in the bloodstream of a baby calf is bad news.
Even if colostrum is chilled or frozen, it doesn't mean that the bacteria don't have time to multiply. The capacity of the refrigerator or freezer to quickly chill and the volume that is to be chilled or frozen can allow much of the colostrum to remain warm for hours. That's plenty of time for the logarithmic growth of bacteria to occur.
Under warm conditions, bacteria can double in population roughly every 20-30 minutes. This means that in 8 hours, good quality colostrum can have a bacterial population that exceeds 2 million bacteria per milliliter. That's more than enough challenge to kill a calf.
Fresh colostrum also contains white blood cells from the mother that impart "memory" to the calf's "uneducated" immune system. These white blood cells act somewhat like a vaccine to prime the calf's immune system to respond to a pathogen quicker than it would be able to without them. This effect is lost when colostrum is stored or when a replacer is fed.
I have just a couple of things to say about colostrum replacers. First, if you have a colostrum replacer product, make sure it is indeed a replacer and not a supplement. Replacers must contain at least 120 grams of immunoglobulins, or antibodies, to have a minimum of effectiveness.
If they contain less, they are only supplements and won't impart adequate protection to the calf. Second, they shouldn't be used routinely but only as a last resort when fresh colostrum is unavailable. Even colostrum replacers, while convenient and biosecure, do not give adequate protection to fully one-half of the calves that receive it.
In addition to its laxative effect and immune stimulating properties, colostrum is also loaded with energy and vitamins that can give that calf a great start in life. This brings me to the second major thing that can get a calf through the winter- adequate nutrition to stay warm. That will be the topic for next month.