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Dairy Cattle Health Updates, Advice and Tips from Devoted Vets

Colostrum quantity - the facts and risk factors

Calves are born into often heavily contaminated environments, and they have a first line of defence against infection – white blood cells.

However, even in seemingly clean calf areas, and especially in heavily contaminated environments, a calf’s white cells can be easily overwhelmed by viruses, bacteria or parasites, causing disease and outbreaks of infection.

White cells alone are not enough! A second level of immunity is required. Special proteins in the blood called antibodies lock onto bugs and render them harmless, but it takes eight weeks for a newborn calf to make its’ own antibodies. So, and this is a critical point: from birth to eight weeks of age, calves are especially vulnerable to disease.

To protect them over this vulnerable period, they are given an additional level of immunity - antibodies in their first milk or colostrum, made by their mother against bugs on the home farm.

Under ideal conditions, this dose of antibodies should be enough to prevent infection. You’ve probably watched newborn calves being born, struggle to their feet, find their mother, and then search for the udder and teats before successfully sucking, and receiving their protective dose of antibodies. Truly a miracle of nature! However many factors can adversely affect this “transfer” of immunity from cow to calf. The actual volume of colostrum the calf drinks may be reduced:

  • If a calf is weakened by a long, difficult or premature birth, its drive to stand, search for a teat, and suck may be reduced.
  • A prolonged birth may also cause the calf’s tongue to swell which can prevent normal sucking.
  • Wind, cold and rain can also weaken a calf.
  • Some calves just seem to have difficulty finding a teat, and so miss out.
  • Cows themselves can also pose problems. Diseases such as milk fever and mastitis will interfere with the calf sucking.
  • Following a difficult or assisted calving, first-calving heifers or cows may ignore their calves.
  • Tight, congested udders in heifers, and poor teat and udder shape in older cows make it difficult for a calf to suck.
  • Overcrowding in calving paddocks or on pads can lead to mismothering.
  • The practice of removing calves at 12 to 24 hours following birth may result in an inadequate volume of colostrum.
  • In general, dairy cows are not bred for mothering ability, and are poorer mothers than their beef counterparts, and dairy calves are likewise less vigorous than beef calves.

Now an important point: calves only transfer antibodies from colostrum into their bloodstream for the first 24 hours of life. Following this period, antibodies are digested like any normal protein!

So, if a calf fails to drink a sufficient quantity of colostrum within 24 hours of birth, its defences against infection will be seriously weakened for
the next eight weeks. Risk of disease, spreading infection to other calves, and indeed calf death will be dramatically increased. These are indeed high risk calves!

How much colostrum? Calves should drink 4 to 5 litres of colostrum within that first critical 24 hours of life.

Studies have shown that if calves are left on their mothers, 30 to 50% will have reduced levels of antibodies as a result.

If you have a problem with disease and infection in calves, Devoted Vets at Warragul Vet Clinic, West Gippsland can provide an on-farm visit to assess the risk factors involved and help you develop a plan to improve your calves health. Phone the clinic on 5623 2525 for further advice.