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Is your calf getting enough colostrum?

Farmers may want to take product source, birth ease and method of feeding into account when determining if a calf has got enough colostrum in the first few hours

Newborn calves must suckle soon after birth to get the lifelong health benefits of consuming colostrum.

A calf should have a strong suckle reflex 10 minutes after birth, or they’ll likely need human help to get enough colostrum.

That’s the message that Dr. Craig Dorin of Airdrie, Alta., had for producers as the early calving season gets underway. Dorin was one of two veterinarians to touch on colostrum during a recent Beef Cattle Research Council webinar.

The Alberta veterinarian identified a critical four-hour window after birth, in which a calf should get at least two litres of colostrum, either through nursing or human intervention. Heavy milk breeds may need more than two litres within the first four hours, Dorin said, although he added that colostrum could be separated into multiple feedings.

Why it matters: Calves that don’t want to suck are at risk of not getting enough colostrum, along with all the health problems that implies. A test minutes after birth may let you know that calf is going to need intervention.

Dorin cited work by Alberta veterinarian Elizabeth Homerosky, which found that calves with a weak suckle reflex were 41 times less likely to get enough colostrum on their own.

Farmers should make a suckle reflex test part of their usual calving routine, he argued, and a calf should latch onto a finger brushing the roof of its mouth within minutes of birth. If that reflex is weak, the producer may have to start looking at supplements or tube feeding.

That test may be particularly important in the case of a hard pull, according to Homerosky. Her work found that the amount of calves that nursed normally within four hours of birth went down, and both bottle-fed and tube-fed calves increased, as births became more difficult. Under 40 per cent of the 14 hard pulls in the study went on to nurse on their own, compared to over 80 per cent of the 22 unassisted births.

Not all feeding types are made equal, attendees also heard. Producers were urged to nurse if they could, but failing that, were told that bottle feeding will give better colostrum delivery than tube feeding. The latter comes with both the risk of aspiration and relies on overflowing a calf’s digestive system until fluid reaches the final stomach, Dorin said. In contrast, suckling uses the esophageal groove to shunt milk to that final stomach, and requires less product.

Dr. Lisa Freeze, of Moncton, N.B., also warned producers to consider the source of their colostrum, if it’s not coming from the mother. A rancher can source colostrum from another cow in the herd before turning to supplements, she said, or get milk from another farm. Freeze regards that last option with a degree of caution. Although she has heard of farmers running to a neighbouring dairy farm for extra colostrum, that farm may have different micro-organisms or may not be clean, she argued.

“Colostrum from your own herd is the best,” Dorin also said. “A second choice would be the commercial products that are available. We’re reluctant to recommend dairy colostrum, partly because you need a higher volume to get the same amount of IgG (the main immunoglobulin in cow milk) because it’s a more dilute product. And then, of course, there’s always the potential of introducing outside disease into your herd.”

Freeze also warned producers to watch the label if they turn to commercial products.

“Is the product you’re using a complete replacement, which means that calf will be perfectly fine if it gets zero other colostrum other than that packet of powder, or is it a supplement, which means that your calf is still supposed to receive some sort of colostrum from the cow or it probably needs multiple packages of that product in order to completely replace the antibodies it would get from its mother?” she said.

A producer may want to look ahead to buffer against future nursing problems, according to Freeze.

Colostrum can be harvested from a farmer’s own herd and frozen for a year, she said, although it should be carefully warmed before use.

“You do have to make sure that when you’re thawing it, it’s a slow thaw, that it’s not in hot, hot water, because you are going to cook the antibodies that are in that colostrum,” she said.

Microwaving colostrum will do similar damage, she warned.

About the author


Alexis Stockford

Alexis Stockford is a journalist and photographer with the Manitoba Co-operator. She previously reported with the Morden Times and was news editor of  campus newspaper, The Omega, at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC. She grew up on a mixed farm near Miami, Man.



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