Newborn dairy calf care management

Replacement heifer performance depends on the quality care of the newborn calf.

white dairy cow licking newborn calf laying in a straw filled pen
Holstein cow and newborn calf in a maternity pen. Photo by: Paola Bacigalupo Sanguesa, Michigan State University Extension

The first hours of life are decisive for a newborn dairy calf. In this phase, failure in management and procedures can lead to increased incidence of diseases, decreased growth rate and increased mortality rates.

We often think about colostrum feeding when we think about newborn calf care. Though it is one of the most critical steps, newborn calf care should not stop there. This article will talk about three essential steps that should be taken once a dairy calf is born.

Step 1: Dip navel in a 7% tincture iodine solution immediately after birth

During birth, the umbilical cord rupture leaves an open door for environmental pathogens to access internal structures and the organs connected to them. Under normal conditions and without infection, the navel will dry, and its structures will atrophy. Navel infection rates of 1-14% are reported worldwide, often due to pathogens found maternity pens and calf housing areas. Higher than the direct costs of the navel infection treatment are the costs of associated diseases and their long-term effects. The local infection can be spread by the blood circulation to joints, lungs, and kidneys, causing complications, decreased growth rate, and increased mortality rates.

umbilical cord
Umbilical cord structures of the calf. Illustration by: Paola Bacigalupo Sanguesa, MSU Extension

Using a navel dip solution will prevent infections by killing pathogens and accelerating the drying process of the umbilical cord. The gold standard solution for navel dip is 7% tincture of iodine. Tinctures are alcohol-based solutions where the iodine provides the disinfectant properties and the alcohol serves as a drying action. However, due to restrictions on its use in the U.S., its availability can be limited. As an alternative, 2% chlorhexidine solutions can be used with similar efficacy. Iodine-based teat dips are not a substitute for the 7% tincture of iodine, it contains 1% or less iodine and skin conditioners such as glycerin that will slow down the drying process.

Navels need to be dipped immediately after the calf is born and Michigan State University Extension recommends a second application of the disinfectant within the first day of life, which can be done along with a second colostrum feeding. The correct way to apply is very important, and dipping is more effective than spraying. Cleanliness of the cup or container used to dip the solution is critical. A dirty cup can reduce the dip solution efficacy and spread infections. It is imperative to make sure that the entire navel is exposed to the solution, and for that, you can agitate the container pressing its edges to the skin around the navel's base.

Do not forget to monitor the calf’s navel through the first two weeks of life. The navel should be checked for excessive bleeding, pain, abnormal swelling, odor, or pus and treated as recommended by your herd veterinarian.

Step 2: Remove the newborn calf from the maternity pen

A clean maternity pen is critical for a successful newborn calf care program. However, the immediate removal of the calf from the maternity pen is essential to minimize or prevent the calf’s exposure to pathogens and prevent common calf infectious disorders such as navel infection, diarrhea, pneumonia and septicemia. Most newborn calves will stand by themselves within the first 30 minutes following birth, although some calves can take up to two hours. Once standing, the calf will attempt to nurse and, during the process, lick contaminated parts of the dam, dirty teats, and even the maternity facilities. Moving the calf to a designated and properly cleaned area is also an opportunity to quickly check its health status.

Step 3: Feed high-quality (Brix > 22) colostrum (10 % BW) within the first 6 hours after birth

Colostrum is the first mammary gland secretion produced by the dam after calving, and it is high in immunoglobulins (Ig), protein, energy and vitamins. Because there is minimal transfer of immunoglobulins from the dam to the calf during gestation, calf immunity relies on the immunoglobulins absorbed in the intestine during the first hours after birth. Therefore, failure to absorb the immunoglobulins from colostrum, known as the failure of passive transfer, will increase morbidity and mortality, reduce growth rates, and lower performance during productive life.

The success of the colostrum feeding management depends on the amount fed, the quality of the colostrum, and the timing, also known as the three Q's: Quantity, Quality, and Quickness of feeding colostrum. MSU Extension recommends feeding 10% of the body weight of high-quality colostrum, which consists of colostrum harvested hygienically and with high concentrations of immunoglobulins 50 g/L IgG’s (Brix > 22) within six hours after birth. Generally, Holstein calves will consume 4 quarts of colostrum during this time.  

A recent study conducted by Desjardins-Morrissette and colleagues comparing tube and nipple bottle colostrum feeding observed no differences between those two methods regarding the IgG absorption. However, when feeding colostrum by nipple bottle, it is important to ensure that the correct amount of colostrum is consumed by the newborn calf.  An esophageal tube feeder should be used if a calf cannot suckle from a bottle to consume enough colostrum. The cleanliness of the colostrum and the feeding supplies – including bottles, nipples, esophageal tubes – also play an essential role in the success of the colostrum feeding. Bacteria may interfere with IgG absorption across the gut, making it important to avoid contamination during colostrum harvesting, storage and feeding.  

A second colostrum feeding within 6-12 hours after birth is highly recommended. When possible, we recommend an additional 2 to 3 quarts of clean colostrum, even if it is not high quality (less than 50 g/L IgG's, or under 22 on the BRIX scale). Some calves will not be hungry yet and refuse to suckle from the bottle. In this scenario, an esophageal tube feeder is warranted.  

For additional information or if you are interested in discussing your newborn calf care program, contact a member of the Michigan State University Extension Dairy Team.

A printable summary of this article in Spanish and English is also available to download.  

Download Newborn Dairy Calf Care Handout

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