Dairy steer calves need adequate quantities of colostrum

Feeding adequate quantities of high quality colostrum shortly after birth to newborn calves is critical to achieving passive immunoglobulin transfer from dam to calf.

Dairy bull calf sales account for one to two percent of gross sales on most dairy farms. Because this number is so low some dairy farmers see little incentive to care for the bull calves with the same level of care as the heifer counterparts. Calf raisers buying male calves should discuss with dairy farmers the care that bull calves received at birth. Colostrum is as important to male calves as the females. During the first few hours of life, only air is more important to calves than colostrum. Calves that do not receive adequate, high quality colostrum are at greater risk for morbidity and mortality because of insufficient transfer of immunoglobulins (Ig) from the colostrum.

Experts from Michigan State University Extension recommend:

  • 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 40 degrees Fahrenheit 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 percent of calves within four hours of birth with four quarts of colostrum.

Following these recommended practices will help ensure that calves receive adequate Ig transfer and will significantly aid in reducing sickness. Calves that do not obtain adequate transfer will suffer significantly high rates of morbidity and mortality. Dairy producers can aid in producing vigorous calves that can be profitable for feeders 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. For more information regarding feeding dairy steer calves, contact me, ruminant Extension educator with Michigan State University at wardynsk@anr.msu.edu or 906-884-4386.

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