The 'secret' to saving up to 60,000 of the calves lost on Irish farms each year – at a cost of €10m to farmers – could be found in cows' milk, according to the findings of a Teagasc research project.
Almost 90,000 calves born into Irish dairy and beef herds each year fail to survive to more than six months, accounting for 41pc of the total animal deaths on farms each year.
Analysis of post mortems carried out at the Department of Agriculture regional laboratories show that two-thirds of the deaths were attributed to a low level of antibodies in their system, which could have been avoided by feeding more immunoglobulins from collostrum during the early hours of life.
Further research carried out at Teagasc Moorepark by Muireann Conneely and Emer Kennedy has found that feeding 8.5pc of the calf's body weight of collostrum within the first two hours of life could dramatically reduce calf mortality.
If the calf weighs 35kg you would aim to feed about three litres of colostrum. Feeding 10pc of calf body weight in collostrum was not better for the calf than feeding 7pc, the researchers found.
"The newly-born calf has a very weak immune system and relies on collostrum, which contains the disease-preventing immunoglobulins, also known as antibodies, to fight infection," Ms Connealy explained.
On a sample of 704 cows tested, the study found that 95pc produced good quality collostrum with high levels of antibodies, and while older cows were a little better, first calvers also produced good quality collostrum.
Only the first milking (after calving) is collostrum-rich, and subsequent milkings were not high enough to protect the calf from disease, although calves fed this (transition) milk for a few days showed fewer symptoms of ill health.