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Colostrum: Giving the calf a good start in life

Colostrum is the key to getting calves off to a good start in life. In the last month before calving, the level of antibodies in the blood flow to the udder increases 30 to 60 fold, according to Teagasc's dairy expert, John Donworth.

This ensures a high level of antibodies in the first milk post-calving. This milk (biestings and colostrum) is vital to the calf's health and well-being.

So how much colostrum should the calf have in the first hours of life? The calf should receive at least two litres (3.5 pints) within the first two hours of birth, says the Teagasc expert.

"A further two litres should be given four to six hours later. Big calves should get closer to three litres, but the important point here is they should get it early," Mr Donworth says.

How do you ensure the calf gets its allocation?

"Ideally the four teats of the cow should be drawn and the milk put into a bucket with a teat on it. Most calves are born with a strong inclination to suck and so should take in the two litres in about five minutes.

"Slow calves can take up to 10 minutes. However, some calves won't suck at all -- this is when the stomach tube is used."

The stomach tube will ensure that the colostrum gets taken into the calf in about two minutes. Only about 10pc of calves should need the use of the stomach tube, but some dairy farmers use it on up to 30pc of calves, to speed up the job.

However, care is needed when inserting the stomach tube, warns Mr Donworth.

Mixing biestings from a group of cows for feeding to a different group of calves is not advisable due to the potential for spreading Johne's Disease.

Colostrum is only absorbed across the calf's stomach wall during the first 24 hours of life.

After this, the antibodies cannot pass through the wall, but that doesn't mean that you should cease feeding colostrum. Feed it for as long as possible.

Inadequate colostrum results in an increased incidence of diarrhoea and a vast increase in mortality -- from three to 9pc.

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