The care a newborn calf receives dictates the potential that calf will have to grow into a healthy, strong and productive member of your herd. Virginia Tech University professor emeritus of dairy science Dr. Robert James hosted a webinar May 4 focusing on newborn care as part of his Calf College series, sponsored by DeLaval.
    According to James, newborn care begins well before birth. Dry cow management and nutrition play a vital role in the health of the gestating calf. Vaccination programs implemented during the dry period play a significant role in the immunity offered to the calf and the quality of colostrum produced by the dam at parturition.
    Dry cow nutrition is not to be taken lightly, either. During the dry period, dairy cows consume less feed, taking in only about 30 pounds of dry matter daily. This feed is typically lower in energy and protein, and higher in fiber, helping to limit intake and encourage rumen health.
    During the dry period, cows have great need for the consumption of micro nutrients, such as vitamins A, D and E, as well as trace minerals such as copper (15ppm), selenium (0.3 ppm), zinc (42ppm), cobalt (0.15-0.2ppm) and manganese (50ppm). James also advocates for including supplemental amino acids, such as metabolizable Methionine, during the prepartum period at the rate of 5-10 grams per day.
    Besides ensuring sound dry cow nutrition, James said to avoid overcrowding of dry cows, limiting their exposure to heat stress, as well as keeping their environment clean with a low microbial load and excellent ventilation.
    “Cow cooling during the dry period impacts not only how that cow is going to perform in her next lactation, but also the calf’s health, as well,” James said.
    He advocates for a minimum of a 45-day dry period and said many producers are seeing great successes going back to the traditional 60-day dry period. He said to avoid extremely short dry periods, those under 21 days.
    After laying the groundwork for optimal colostrum production and calf health during the dry period, newborn care gets serious as the cow prepares to give birth.
    A clean, sanitary calving environment is the first step for ensuring the health of the newborn calf.
    James said a farm’s close-up pen should allow for easy and frequent monitoring, allowing farmers to be able to administer colostrum as soon as possible to newborn calves. Ideally, James said colostrum should be harvested and new born calves fed in the first two hours following birth, and no later than six hours.
    “It’s like a race to see what reaches the small intestine first,” James said. “Will it be the harmful environmental bacteria, or will it be the passive immunity transfer from the colostrum?”
    Things that can affect the timeliness and quality of this passive transfer include when the fresh cow is milked following calving. Do you have a bucket milker available for use at the calving site? Or, will the cow be milked with the hospital string? Will that milking occur at the beginning or the end of a milking session? How is the colostrum handled between harvest and feeding or storage? Improper handling of colostrum, or use of unclean containers, can cause an increase of harmful bacterial growth in the milk, defeating the result you are attempting to achieve. Cows who leak excessively prior to calving also cause concern, as there is a loss of IgG during the leakage.
    The goal is to feed calves at least 200 grams of IgG at birth, within the first two hours of life. That equates to feeding four liters of colostrum that rates 50 grams of IgG per liter. James said to use a refractometer to determine the IgG present in colostrum. His goal is to feed newborns colostrum that measure at 22IgG or higher. James said producers should keep a supply of colostrum replacer on hand for situations when the dam’s colostrum is not high enough quality to meet these goals.
    James maintains that feeding colostrum for the first four days of life, even if it is under the recommended 22IgG for initial colostrum feedings, can positively impact the calf’s growth and gut development. Calves fed colostrum for several feedings have been found to have higher levels of glucose and have taller villi lining their small intestine than calves who only receive one feeding of colostrum. Taller villi mean the calf has increased surface area available for absorption of nutrients.
    Bacteria introduced into the intestine through improperly handled colostrum can have the opposite effect on the developing intestinal villi, limiting the growth and development, and the future rate of absorption of nutrients for that calf.
    “We most often fail at our goals because of our facilities,” James said, noting either they are not set up to allow the cow to be milked and the calf to be fed in a timely fashion, or they introduce environmental bacteria.
    When preparing colostrum for storage, rapid cooling is a must.
    “Colostrum that sits at room temperature for six hours will have over 6 million coliform forming units per milliliter,” James said. “If you just put colostrum in the refrigerator in a gallon jug or bottle, it takes a long time to get down under 45 degrees. It creates a bacteria soup.”
    James said to adequately cool colostrum, those containers should be submerged in ice water, decreasing the cooling time to less than 20 minutes, limiting bacteria growth. He also recommends avoiding pre-warming of colostrum, in anticipation of a calving for the same reasons.
    Cleanliness is important, particularly when handling newborn calves and colostrum. James recommends a simple, but effective procedure for washing calf-feeding equipment: a luke-warm water rinse, followed by hot soapy water, a sanitizer and allowing the equipment to air dry.
    James encourages producers to consider pasteurization of their colostrum, particularly in herds with high health risks, such as those that have expanded and brought animals into the herd.
    A University of Minnesota study looked at 1,000 calves, half of which were fed raw colostrum at birth and half fed pasteurized colostrum. All calves received their first colostrum feeding within the first hour of life. The fresh colostrum averaged 63.9IgG and the pasteurized colostrum averaged 61.1IgG. However, the fresh colostrum had a plate count of 515,000 and a coliform count of 51,500. The pasteurized colostrum had a plate count of 2,100 and a coliform count of 90.
    While the IgG was slightly lower, there was a significant difference in plate counts and coliform counts, and there was a lower incidence in scours in the pasteurized group due to the lower E. coli counts in the colostrum.
    Using batch pasteurization, the 60 degrees Celsius for 60 minutes rule of thumb is followed, as opposed to pasteurizing waste milk at 63 degrees Celsius for 30 minutes.
    “Colostrum needs to be pasteurized at a slightly lower temperature, over a longer period of time,” James said. “Even a slightly higher temperature will cause coagulation of the milk because of the higher protein content present in colostrum.”
    Regardless of the methods you choose to use in your own calving and calf-rearing programs, success comes from a commitment to maintaining quality and adhering to high standards.