Why a good start for your young calves is half the battle won

Wim Hofman

International Ruminants specialist

02 November 2021
3 minutes

Calves lack a developed immune system at birth, making colostrum crucial for disease protection. Research highlights the benefits of timely colostrum feeding, reducing veterinary costs. Controlling the calving process and ensuring colostrum intake quality are vital. Vaccination of mother cows and effective farm management further enhance calf health.

Did you know calves are born without a well-functioning immune system? Or that they gain essential protection against disease via the colostrum in their mother’s milk during the first period of life?

On US farms, digestive and respiratory diseases are the most common conditions in calves (21.1 and 12%, respectively). Overall, 16.0 and 11.4% of heifers are treated for digestive and respiratory disease, respectively, using antibiotics.

The natural power of the animal

It is important to feed colostrum to young calves shortly after birth. Indeed, research shows that calves fed double the amount of colostrum straight after birth incurred lower veterinary costs ($24.51 versus $14.77 per calf). The reason for the difference in costs was primarily because the illnesses that were observed in calves fed lower amounts of colostrum required repeated treatment and monitoring of the animal. The need to move fast lies in the absorption capacity for antibodies, decreasing quickly after birth. Also, the concentration of antibodies decreases quickly in milk, with a decrease up to 50% in just the first 12 hours after calving. Imagine calves being born late in the evening or during the night: most of them receive the first colostrum early in the morning.

Ensuring a high-quality colostrum intake

The logical conclusion is to keep mother and calf together directly after birth. Or so it would seem. In reality, we know from research that more than 40% of calves reared this way present insufficient antibodies in their blood due to not receiving enough colostrum from their mother.

The solution lies in taking control over the wider calving process, as far back as the dry period, the cow’s final gestation phase. We know conclusively that calves of cows fed according to their requirements during the gestation phase do better.

Alongside this, it is important to measure colostrum quality and act on it. If the mother cow is not producing enough high-quality colostrum, an alternative is to use colostrum kept in the freezer from older cows. This will generally contain a higher concentration of antibodies.

But there is more

Another way for farms to increase resistance, and reduce the use of antibiotics in calves, is to vaccinate their mother cows against various viruses, including rota and coronaviruses. This way, their calves receive essential antibodies via the vaccinated cow’s colostrum.

At the same time, it is important not to underestimate the positive impact of effective (health) management. Animals kept in good conditions, including optimal hygiene and ventilation, are more active and likely to have a good feed intake. Last but not least, the right feeding strategies will help to optimise feed intake and the development of the young calf, setting it up for a healthy and productive life.

About the author

Wim Hofman

International Ruminants specialist

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