Wouldn’t it be great if you had a crystal ball? One that could accurately forecast the weather, predict milk prices, confirm when a heifer is in heat or reveal which calf is going to scour. How much money would you pay to be perfectly clairvoyant?
    The possibilities are endless, but the reality is we cannot control all the variables. Fortunately, there are simple steps you can take to optimize calf health. Let’s focus on what we can control.
    – Feed quality colostrum to your calves as soon as possible. Getting colostrum into calves within the first six hours of birth is crucial to calf health and future performance. Calves need colostrum antibodies in order to prevent disease. Additionally, colostrum provides calves a high-protein, high-energy and vitamin-rich first meal. The timing of colostrum is important because with each passing hour, the absorption rate of colostrum antibodies decreases. Along with timing, colostrum quality is also critical. Many farmers use a refractometer to determine what level of colostrum they will feed to calves and what their cutoff is for first colostrum feeding versus the second. As far as volume, I refer to the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine’s Dr. Sheila McGuirk’s recommendation to feed at least 3 quarts of colostrum within four hours of birth (4 quarts if tubing colostrum).
    – Make sure calves have plenty of clean bedding. Recommendations for calf bedding vary by season. In warmer weather, we want calves to remain cool and dry, while in cooler temperatures, we want to help decrease the incidence of cold stress. Sand is being used more frequently as a bedding in summer months as it keeps calves cool and dry. Whereas straw is preferable in winter so that calves can nestle into it and reserve body heat. To check the dampness of bedding, try the knee test, which involves kneeling on the bedding for about a minute. If you stand up and your knees are wet or cold, then there is not enough dry bedding. You should also be able to tell by manure buildup or bedding sticking to a calf’s knees.
    – Keep milk or milk replacer temps as consistent as possible. The optimal temperature for feeding milk replacer is 101-105 degrees. A calf’s body temperature is right around 102 degrees and feeding at that temperature means she does not have to use energy to warm up the milk. This goal gets trickier in cold climates during winter time. To help ensure the right temperature, some farmers place bottles in a pail of warm water and feed a maximum of four calves at a time. Calves thrive on consistency, so changes in feeding temperatures can cause digestive upsets and even trigger gut issues like clostridials. In order to decrease the likelihood of digestive upsets, it is important to keep feed temperatures and schedules as consistent as possible.
    – Use guaranteed antibodies for scours prevention. Calves are born with an immature immune system, and they do not develop their own antibodies for weeks after they hit the ground. As discussed earlier, colostrum antibodies are vital to preventing diseases, such as E. coli, coronavirus and rotavirus. However, the quality of maternal colostrum is highly variable when it comes to these specific antibodies, leaving a newborn calf with inadequate protection. For years, many farmers have used cow vaccinations hoping to increase antibodies through colostrum to the calf. Unfortunately, implementing a sound vaccine program has many challenges and calves are still dying from scours despite wide-spread vaccination use. Today, more and more doctors and researchers are using antibodies to combat a wide variety of human diseases. This technology is also available to the livestock industry. During a recent immunology symposium, Dr. Chris Chase, Department of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences at South Dakota State University, highlighted the use of passive polyclonal antibodies. According to Chase, these antibodies protect against both bacterial and viral scours. He said: With vaccines, there are too many outside factors, making a 100% immunization response rate biologically impossible. But with an antibody product, farmers know exactly what they are getting – a known and proven level of protection against scours.
    – Practice good sanitation protocols. Sanitation is key when it comes to decreasing bacteria loads, especially on equipment that has a clear route to a calf’s gut, including bottles, nipples, buckets, tubers, etc. The first step is to clean off manure and dirt that you can see. Next, it is important to properly sanitize these items in order to get rid of the organisms you cannot see. In an article in Bovine Veterinarian, Dr. Donald Sockett from the Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory recommends these steps:
    – Rinse equipment with lukewarm water.
    – Soak with hot water, at least 140 degrees F that contains a chlorinated alkaline detergent with a pH of 11-12.
    – Vigorously wash calf feeding equipment with a brush for 1-2 minutes.
    – Rinse with cold water and then rinse again using an acidic solution with a pH of 2-3.
    – Allow calf feeding equipment to fully dry (do not stack pails; use a drying rack).
    – Sanitize both the inside and outside of calf feeding equipment two hours or less before use.
    I encourage you to work with your veterinarian, nutritionist and other consultants to analyze your calf management program. Determine how well you are doing on the steps above and improve as needed. The key is to consistently control the controllables. Do that, and you will not need to rely on special fortune-telling powers.
    Ellen is the First Defense regional sales and marketing manager for Wisconsin and Minnesota. She’s a problem solver who loves walking calf hutches and diagnosing protocol drift. A great day is a day spent helping dairy and beef farmers keep their baby calves healthy! Ellen can be reached at ecushing@immucell.com.