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Getting newborn calves off to a good start

Colostrum intake soon after birth is critical in first few hours

The most important day of a calf’s life is the first one. There are key factors that play a role in whether a baby calf gets off to a good start and research has demonstrated that the first 24 hours of life are critical for a calf to survive to weaning and beyond.

Dystocia, or calving complications, pose a health risk for both the newborn calf and the cow. While dystocia can be partly managed with careful breeding choices and culling practices, proper nutrition and managing for a body condition score of three (on a scale of one to five) before calving, difficult deliveries can still occur.

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Every scenario is different, however, once a water bag appears, a calf should hit the ground within one hour for cows, or up to one and a half hours for a first-calf heifer. If this doesn’t happen, intervention may be needed, especially if no progress has occurred for 30 minutes, the cow stops pushing, or there are other signs of trouble. If there is a problem, a water bag may not always appear, so observe other behaviours that signal labour, such as tail switching, restlessness, the appearance of membranes or discharge or a kink in the cow’s tail.

Calves born with assistance are less likely to drink colostrum — that first, rich milk newborns require — on their own. Assisted calves are more likely to have reduced vigour or be mismothered and need proper care and attention to increase their ability to survive.

  • If a calf is born with assistance, DO NOT hang it upside down. Rather, place the calf in the recovery position to keep the airway open and better enable it to start breathing.
  • Both cows and calves may benefit from pain medication following a difficult delivery. Administering an NSAID like meloxicam can help to promote cow recovery, improve her appetite, and lead to better milk production. If a calf’s pain is managed, they will be more comfortable, are more likely to get up and stay active, start nursing, and stay warm.
  • Assess a calf’s vigour by testing for a suckle reflex. Place a finger or two in the calf’s mouth and gently tickle the roof of its mouth. If a calf has a strong suckle reflex within 10 minutes of birth, it will have a better chance of nursing the cow on its own without assistance. A calf with a weak suckle reflex will need monitoring and likely colostrum supplementation.
  • A dazed or weak calf can be resuscitated. To stimulate a calf, rub the chest vigorously, poke a clean straw into its nostril or even dribble a small amount of cold water in its ear.

Colostrum – the sooner the better

Colostrum is full of fats, vitamins, and protein antibodies called immunoglobulin G (IgG). These antibodies are essential to help a calf develop immunity to diseases specific to the farm it is born on. Calves should suckle a recommended minimum of one litre of colostrum in the first four to six hours of life.

Photo: Beef Cattle Research Council.

Producers should pay attention to whether they see a baby calf nurse its mother. Look to see if the cow’s teats have been sucked, feel the calf’s belly to see if it is full, or look at its hooves to see if the soft, rubbery capsule has been worn off, an indication that it has been standing up. If it doesn’t look like the calf has what it needs or it appears weak or dull, the following are some supplementation considerations:

  • The best source of supplemental colostrum is from within your own herd. The freshly calved cow can be milked, or colostrum can be collected from another cow on your farm and frozen for up to one year.
  • Never microwave colostrum. This can “cook” the antibodies and render them useless. Instead, place the bag of frozen colostrum in a bowl of warm water so it can gradually increase in temperature.
  • Powdered colostrum is an option if fresh/frozen colostrum is unavailable. Read the package to determine if the product is a “replacement” or a “supplement.” Supplements contain fewer grams of IgG per litre so two packages may be required to meet the needs of the calf.
  • Veterinarians recommend feeding calves anywhere from a minimum of 100 grams IgG up to 200 grams IgG.
  • Avoid colostrum sourced from other farms, to prevent bringing unwanted diseases to your herd.
  • When administering colostrum, bottle-feeding is better than tube-feeding. A bottle will support the calf’s suckle reflex which in turn will ensure the optimal amount of antibodies are absorbed in the calf’s gut.
  • Tube feeding is better than nothing, however, it places the milk directly into the rumen, which doesn’t allow for maximum absorption.
  • Use separately marked tubes or bottles for feeding colostrum and treating sick calves. This will prevent newborn calves from being exposed to disease.
  • Clean and disinfect bottles and tubes after each use.

Disease prevention – keep calving area clean

The most effective way to manage disease in young calves is to manage the “disease balance”. If calves aren’t exposed to bacteria and viruses that cause common calfhood diseases such as scours, septicemia, pneumonia, or navel ill, their risk of infection is going to be minimal.

  • Disease outbreaks are less common when cattle are spread out so if possible, reduce confinement.
  • For producers calving on pasture, provide ample space for expectant cows, then move pairs to fresh ground. This is referred to as a Sandhills calving system.
  • When calving in a corral, the principle of providing a clean environment remains the same. Provide lots of fresh, clean straw for bedding. This also helps ensure that cows’ udders are kept clean and dry.
  • Clean pens regularly.
  • Disease-causing bacteria can lurk in common areas such as creep feeders, wind shelters or calf huts. Ensure permanent structures are kept clean and well bedded. Move portable feeders and shelters often.
  • Isolate and treat sick calves to prevent them from infecting healthy calves.
  • Talk to your veterinarian and make sure your cow herd is up-to-date with vaccinations.

Planning for a successful calving season starts months before the first calf of the year is born, however, the tips outlined above can help producers navigate the calving season now.

Providing effective support for difficult deliveries, ensuring calves receive adequate colostrum, and keeping calving areas clean, will allow producers to optimize the health, wellbeing, and profitability of this year’s calf crop.

For more articles on beef production and management visit the Beef Cattle Research Council website and subscribe to the BCRC blog.

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