Good start half the battle in calf rearing

Aim to give your newborn suckler calf a good start in life and win the battle for survival by ensuring that the calf suckles and receives adequate colostrum in the first six hours of life.

Fresh biestings or colostrum is a rich source of heat, energy, protein and antibodies.

Without adequate colostrum, the newborn calf is more vulnerable to infection, and is more likely to develop disease and die.

The first feed of colostrum is the most important feed of the calf’s lifetime so it is critical that every newborn calf gets an adequate amount.

The recommendation for newborn calves is that they receive three litres of colostrum within the first hour after birth, and a further three litres within six hours.

If a calf is unable to suckle, or is too weak or traumatised after a difficult calving to suckle on its own, it should be fed colostrum by means of a bucket with a teat, or a stomach tube.

An ongoing study by Teagasc on numerous suckler farms has shown that 21% of young suckler calves have low levels of antibodies in their bloodstream, indicating that they did not receive enough colostrum at birth.

Antibody Action

Calves have no immunity against disease at birth.

They rely for protection on the antibodies of the cow, delivered via the colostrum until they are old enough to produce their own antibodies.

Antibodies in colostrum are large proteins that can only enter the blood from the intestine of the calf in the first six hours after birth.

This ability to absorb antibodies decreases by 50% after six hours of life, and is gone by 24 hours. Therefore, early feeding and an adequate amount of good quality colostrum are the first and most vital disease protection measures in the calf’s life.

Furthermore, vaccination against calf scours can only be effective via passive immunity if the calf consumes sufficient levels of colostrum soon after calving.

Colostrum quality

Quality of colostrum tends to vary from cow to cow. Cows in better condition produce better quality colostrum.

Antibody levels are lower in heifers than in mature suckler cows. The maximum level and potency of antibodies occurs after fourth or fifth calvings.

Mastitis will lower colostrum quality; poor nutrition pre-calving will reduce colostrum quality and quantity.

Beef cows may not produce six litres of milk in the first six hours, but the good quality colostrum produced by them should make up for the lack of quantity.

Frozen Colostrum

Have a supply of frozen colostrum on hand at the start of calving, for emergencies.

Milk some from early calving cows (avoid first calvers), or get some from a neighbouring dairy farmer. Store this in a deep freeze in 2-litre plastic milk containers,

It can be stored down to minus 25C for up to a year, without affecting its quality. Frozen colostrum can be thawed safely by placing in a basin of warm water. Avoid thawing using very hot water, or a microwave, as this may damage immunoglobins in the colostrum.

Assisting Calves

Weak or bruised calves unable to stand may need assistance to suckle, or may have to be artificially fed. These weak calves will consume colostrum more readily from a bucket with a teat, than from a stomach tube.

Even some healthy calves sometimes do not suckle without assistance.

Caution is urged if using a stomach tube, as incorrect use may result in choking the calf.

Rub down cow’s teats and check for dirt, cuts and abrasions before allowing calf to suckle.

Calves are slow to suckle if cows have large teats or hanging udders.

If assisting a calf, try and make sure it gets colostrum from at least two teats.


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