Birth to weaning management: Critical to long-term calf health

Feeding colostrum to dairy steer calves is extremely important in ensuring profitability.

Feeding dairy steers from birth to weaning can result in highly variable profits. A positive profit margin becomes increasingly difficult to attain as feed prices increase. As a result, the value of dairy steer calves can be highly variable. Also, the sale of dairy steer calves frequently totals only one percent of gross sales on a dairy operation. It becomes understandable that dairy steer calves may not receive top priority from management and labor on dairy operations.

Feeding adequate quantities of high quality colostrum shortly after birth to newborn calves is critical to achieving passive immunoglobulin (Ig) transfer from dam to calf. The transfer of Ig from dam to calf through the colostrum is important for calf health during the first two months of age. Dr. Sam Leadley, Calf and Heifer Specialist with Attica Veterinarian Associates, presented his recommendations to Optimizing Newborn Calf Health Management at the 2011 Great Lakes Regional Dairy Conference:

  • Cows should be vaccinated with scours vaccines to ensure colostrum antibodies will be present for immunity transfer.
  • Care should be taken to reduce manure buildup on cows and maternity areas should be kept clean to reduce risk of contaminating newborn calves with manure from mature cows. Reducing exposure to mature animal manure greatly reduces mortality and morbidity.
  • Colostrum should be harvested within two hours of birth. Delay of colostrum collection reduces Ig concentration in the colostrum. As compared with two hour post-calving collection of colostrum, Ig concentration decreased by 17, 27 and 33 percent at six, 10 and 14 hour post-calving collection, respectively.
  • Colostrum should also be kept clean and cooled immediately if not fed directly. Coliform growth in colostrum increases exponentially if not cooled to 40o F soon after milking.
  • Ideally, newborn calves should receive four quarts of high quality colostrum within the first few hours of birth. Calves should be encouraged to suckle from a bottle as much of the four quarts as possible and then use an esophageal tube feeder to administer the remaining colostrum.
  • Producers are encouraged to set a goal to feed 80% of calves within 4 hours of birth with four quarts of colostrum.

If these management practices are followed, high rates of Ig transfer to the calf should occur and will help ensure healthy vigorous calves. Immunoglobulin G represents 90% of all Ig transferred to calves. Immunoglobulin G concentrations in blood serum greater than 10mg/ml indicate adequate Ig transfer. Calves with serum concentrations less than 10mg/ml are at greater risk of diseases such as scours and pneumonia and exhibit mortality rates twice those of calves receiving IgG transfer greater than 10mg/ml.

Understanding the highly negative impact of calves receiving insufficient quantities of high quality colostrum at birth is the most important management decision affecting profitability of feeding Holstein steers. Dairy producers can aid in producing vigorous calves by ensuring calves receive adequate quantities of high quality colostrum. Producers that develop a reputation for doing so should receive higher prices for healthy calves.

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