Beef calves require correct colostrum

Apr 04, 2024

Get them breathing, get them up and get them fed are Dr. Claire Windeyer’s three tips for cattle producers who have just witnessed a calf being born.

The latter, and the use of colostrum, drew several questions during a recent Beef Cattle Research Council webinar on calf care.

Windeyer said assisted deliveries result in calves with the highest risk of colostrum deficiency, as are calves with weak sucking reflexes, twins, and orphaned or mismothered calves.

But knowing when to intervene, and with what, is important.

“We used to always think that we had 24 hours to get colostrum into calves,” she said during the webinar. “We’ve learned that really the efficiency is the best during that first one to six hours. The antibodies that come in, a lot more of them are going to get absorbed into the gut and then into the bloodstream in that first one to six hours.”

She recommends against using dairy colostrum because its composition is quite different from beef colostrum. The average beef cow in Alberta has about 150 grams of immunoglobulins (IgG) per litre in its colostrum but produces less than a dairy cow.

The average dairy cow has a concentration of about 70 g/L and a higher yield.

“It’s just not the same product. It’s really not what our beef calves are expecting,” Windeyer said.

Dairy colostrum poses a biohazard risk as well, she added.

The dam’s colostrum is the best option if possible, while a dam from the same herd is second best if the producer has frozen colostrum available.

Having a high quality replacement product on hand is important just in case, she said.

Producers usually want to know how much to feed and she said there isn’t much science available for beef cattle.

Research at the University of Calgary veterinary school, where Windeyer teaches, found calves fed 1.4 L with a concentration of 70 g/L nursed from their mothers significantly sooner than others, at 1.7 hours. The other groups got 1L or 2L and nursed at 4.4 hours or 3.6 hours, respectively.

“We kind of call this the Goldilocks effect, that moderation was key there,” she said.

The researchers also looked at IgG absorption and found all the calves received adequate amounts when fed within an hour of birth.

Producers want to know the best way to deliver colostrum. Research looked at bottle feeding, tube feeding and a combination of the two, and again how long it took the calves to nurse from their mothers.

The bottle-fed calves were soonest to nurse, at 2.3 hours, and the combination calves took the longest at 9.2 hours. The tube-fed calves nursed in four hours.

Windeyer said the type of administration didn’t statistically affect absorption, but there were some differences worth mentioning.

Of the combination calves, about half received adequate amounts and half received moderate levels. In the tube-fed group, more than half were adequate but there were also some failures.

“Again, this was not statistically significantly different, but we wonder if maybe there wasn’t something there, that those calves that were tube fed were maybe just not absorbing the colostrum as well.”

However, tube-feeding is better than waiting.

Producers should keep a close eye on calves that are offered bottles but don’t finish them, to make sure they get up and nurse.

There are long-term consequences if calves don’t get enough colostrum in time. Financially there is a cost to purchase the replacement, but there is also the cost of a dead calf, Windeyer said.

There is a higher risk of disease and death, as well as lower gains, up to and past weaning.

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