Feeding enough good quality colostrum (biestings) to a newborn calf is the single most important thing that a farmer can do to help ensure that a calf survives. Farmers have known this for years but new guidelines have been issued by Animal Health Ireland to reinforce what should be done and when. The guidelines are known as 'Colostrum One Two Three'.
Calves are born without protective antibodies, which means that they do not have an ability to fight off disease. To acquire these antibodies they must be fed colostrum, which is only the milk the cow produces in her first milking after calving.
The calf's gut can only absorb these protective antibodies during its first 24 hours of life and it is most efficient at doing this during its first six hours of life. Failure of this transfer of the ability to fight infection from the cow to the calf condemns the calf to poor thrive and disease, at best, or death, at worst.
In effect, calves should receive three litres of the cow's first milk within two hours of birth. Calves frequently wag their tails when suckling.
But since no-one knows how many wags of the tail is the equivalent to three litres of colostrum, the safest thing to do is milk three litres into a bucket and either feed it with a nipple or via an oesophageal tube (also known as a stomach tube). Three litres is recommended for Holstein Friesian calves weighing 35-45kg at birth. For smaller calves, for example Jersey calves, 2-2.5 litres would be adequate.
Farms should establish a bank of colostrum to use when either a cow calves with poor quality or no colostrum. This bank should ideally only come from healthy cows and it should contain just the first milking. It should either be refrigerated for 24 hours or frozen for up to a year.
Thawing or warming up of colostrum should be done in a bucket of warm water that is not too hot for you to put your hand into. Water that is too hot will break down the protective proteins. Similarly, a microwave should not be used to defrost colostrums.
It should be remembered that pooling of colostrum, ie mixing from a number of different cows, is not recommended, for three reasons:
• There is a risk of disease spread, eg Johne's Disease.
• Poor quality colostrum will dilute better quality colostrum.
• Cows with poorer quality generally have higher volumes .
It has been shown that if cows are vaccinated a month before calving against certain pathogens such as rotavirus, coronavirus and E-coli K99, this increases the concentration of protective antibodies against these bugs. However, the calf will not benefit from the cow having been vaccinated if the Animal Health Ireland guidelines are not closely followed.
If calves can continue to receive some colostrum for the first few weeks of life, this improves their ability to fight off scours as the antibodies in the colostrum kill off infections in the gut before they can be absorbed. This will occur naturally with suckler cows and calves.
To check that all aspects of colostrum management on your farm are satisfactory, your vet can blood-sample a group of calves under two weeks of age and send the bloods to one of the laboratories. If these show that there are inadequate levels of protection, this might be because of:
• Poor quality colostrum;
• Inadequate colostrum;
• Or colostrum fed too late.
If this is the case, discuss these points with your vet.
In summary, the one, two, three of newborn calf health is that colostrum is the milk from the first milking, the calf should receive it within two hours of birth and it should receive three litres.