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Make sure your calves get off to a proper start

Bee 911: Calves need adequate amounts of high-quality colostrum after birth and substitutes are a good option

There have been many articles written over the years on the value of calves receiving adequate amounts of good-quality colostrum. Also over the years, colostrum substitutes have come into greater and greater usage.

Several things have led to this change. Colostrum substitutes have become higher quality and are more convenient than using frozen colostrum. As well, with fewer cows needing help during calving and more producers calving later on grass, heavy producing cows are not around to save colostrum from. (It was always considered best to have colostrum from your own cows, which are on your nutritional and vaccination program.)

The colostrum we get from the Saskatoon Colostrum Company (with such names as Headstart and Calf’s Choice Total) are pasteurized in a spray dry process, mainly to ensure diseases such as Johne’s are not passed on. All batches are also tested in calves as well as in the lab before being released on the market. All the other products sold in Canada are imported from the U.S. These other companies take out some of the fat, as well as some of the antimicrobial and immune factors. There is a big market for these other factors in the human health supplement field. Our local company here in Western Canada does not do that, so all the more reason to shop locally.

Heat treatment makes this commercial supplement safer than getting colostrum from, for example, a dairy where you don’t know the health status. There is nothing wrong with getting colostrum from the first milk of a productive cow in your herd and freezing it for another day. Hopefully she doesn’t have Johne’s disease. When you collect the colostrum, do it carefully to prevent any manure contamination. Use it during the current year or hold over until you can secure more the next year if it goes unused.

I find with today’s busy farmers and the reasons cited above, colostrum is not as convenient to get anymore. You can easily save lots of time by being able to rehydrate the colostrum replacers quickly in warm water versus thawing out the frozen colostrum carefully.

One of the keys to using them involves recognizing how many grams of immunoglobulin are in the product. We have always preached getting at least 100 grams (100 IgG) of immunoglobulin into the calf — ideally four to six hours after birth and, really, the sooner the better.

If using a product such as Headstart (60g IgG), it is critical that the calf receive extra colostrum from the cow as this product is designed as an immediate feeding and the calf should still be encouraged to suckle the cow in the first few hours of life. (Calf’s Choice Total provides the 100g IgG.) These products may seem expensive but the old adage, you get what you pay for, holds true. The better-quality colostrum supplements — that is, those with higher levels of immunoglobulin — are generally more expensive.

Beware of the very cheap colostrum supplements, or should I say those touting themselves as a colostrum substitute. I have often cited the example of colostrix boluses, which were touted as a colostrum source years ago. Each bolus contained 0.3 gram of immunoglobulin, meaning in order to get the full 100 grams the dose would be 300 boluses. Somehow I don’t think that was ever done.

Inexpensive colostrum sources may also not absorb as well into the calf as they have a lower percentage IgG compared to the high-quality complete colostrum product. Look at the label first — the only ingredient should be colostrum. Buy the good substitutes and store them well and follow the mixing directions closely.

Producers can also think of using colostrum supplements more as partial substitutes. An example of this is twins from an average cow where both calves have sucked somewhat. Splitting a 100-gram package between the two calves ensures they both have had enough colostrum. With calves born to poorer milking heifers, make the decision as to how much supplemental colostrum to give. It never hurts to give colostrum if in any doubt even if they have sucked (such as a weak calf, a wild mother, calf from a hard pull, or a calf whose mother has very big teats). Give the whole package (100 grams of immunoglobulin) to ensure their entire colostrum needs have been met.

Colostrum substitutes made from actual colostrum from western Canadian dairy cows seems like a good idea to me. The more local, the better prevention from diseases you are more likely to have show up in your own calves.

At our clinic, we used to acquire frozen colostrum from reputable dairies, which had vaccinated their cows. Now most of these dairies contract to the Saskatoon Colostrum Company because its products offer convenience to the farmer with a product that can be kept at room temperature and can be easily rehydrated and fed when needed.

New research is revealing how taking in colostrum sets the calf up for the long term in terms of how fat is metabolized and how this improves the productivity of the animal. In that critical first few hours of life, colostrum uptake has been proven time and time again to benefit the calf for the rest of its life. Let’s ensure our newborn calves get that vital amount of colostrum in the first four to six hours of life. If there is any doubt on whether the amount was adequate or the quality high enough, don’t hesitate to give the colostrum replacer. It is an investment worth making and will produce many benefits down the line both for that particular calf and for the herd in general (if for instance a herd outbreak of scours could be avoided).

This spring have a supply of colostrum replacer on hand because when you need it, you need it now and I mean right now (within the first four to six hours of life). You should always have some on hand and it is available at most veterinary clinics, feed mills, or farm supply stores. Make sure and clean and disinfect where appropriate the nipple bottles or esophageal feeders between usages. Keep one feeding device exclusively for newborn calves.

Have a great calving season everybody.

About the author

Columnist

Roy Lewis practised large-animal veterinary medicine for more than 30 years and now works part time as a technical services veterinarian for Merck Animal Health.

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