Why is it so hard to ensure calves get quality colostrum when they need it and what management practices can help? Vets Emma Cuttance and Katie Denholm explain.
- Failure to absorb enough immunoglobulins from colostrum in the first 24 hours of a calf’s life can make a calf susceptable to disease and death.
- This failure known as Failure of Passive Transfer (FPT), is relatively common.
- Good management practices can limit the chance of FPT (see below).
- Farmers can test for prevalence of FPT and for the quality of their cows’ colostrum.
Calves are born with a poorly developed immune system. Therefore, they must absorb immunoglobulins from colostrum across the intestinal wall to obtain immunity until their own immune system becomes functional. This process is most effective in the first 24 hours after birth and is often referred to as ‘passive transfer’. Calves that fail to absorb enough immunoglobulin in those first 24 hours are said to have suffered from Failure of Passive Transfer (FPT).
FPT can result in increased mortality rates, disease and long-term reductions in animal productivity1.
The prevalence of FPT in calves has been reported as being 19-40 percent worldwide2, 3, 4, 5. In 2015, a study using 4000 dairy calves from nine different regions across New Zealand indicated that the average prevalence of FPT at various intervals during the spring calving period was 33 percent, with prevalence on-farm ranging between five percent and 80 percent6. This indicates many calves are not getting enough good quality colostrum soon enough after birth.
Why do calves get failure of passive transfer?
- Feeding colostrum with inadequate levels of immunoglobulin.
- Feeding insufficient volumes of colostrum.
- Feeding colostrum too late after birth.
- Bacteria contaminating colostrum at harvest, during storage or at feeding. Coliforms (bacteria from faecal material) are the most detrimental of the bacteria for immunoglobulin absorption7.
Why can feeding enough high quality colostrum be a challenge?
- Time and staffing constraints at calving time, especially with highly compact calving patterns, can make it difficult to ensure new born calves receive enough high quality colostrum shortly after birth. The 2015 study of 105 dairy farmers showed that only 22 percent pick up calves twice a day.
- Colostrum immunoglobulin concentrations and colostrum volumes are extremely variable in dairy cattle8, 9, 10.
- Pooling colostrum is common practice on New Zealand dairy farms, but individual cow variation can result in low immunoglobulin concentrations.
- In the 2015 study, colostrum quality was found to be poor. Only 10 percent of the 298 colostrum samples, collected at multiple times during the calving season, had immunoglobulin concentrations over the recommended levels and only 11 percent of samples had acceptable bacterial contamination levels.
Leaving the calf on its mother versus tube-feeding – which is best?
Leaving a calf with its mother should ensure it gets fresh, warm, high quality colostrum very soon after birth, right? Not necessarily. National and international work suggests that:
- The risk of FPT is higher when calves are left to suckle dams compared with when they are removed promptly and fed enough high quality colostrum in the calf shed.
- If colostrum feeding and storage equipment is hygienic and pooled colostrum is ‘clean’ (low bacteria counts) and managed well, calves may be less likely to get health problems since the mother is a source of infection
- Tubing animals means calves get a known quantity of colostrum within a known time frame but:
- It can lead to milk pooling in the rumen which leads to a poorer immunoglobulin absorption.
- Tube feeding poor quality, contaminated colostrum will increase the risk of FPT occurring.
Testing for failure of passive transfer
Regardless of whether calves are left on their mothers, every calf is tube fed or calves are put onto feeders, the following management steps can be taken to measure and prevent FPT:
Step 1: Test your calves for FPT
You can test for the prevalence of FPT by blood sampling 12 healthy calves (not scouring or dehydrated), between 24 hours and seven days of age, for laboratory analysis of total protein. It is recommended that this is done both at the beginning and peak of calving when the prevalence of FPT is typically higher.
Step 2: Test colostrum for quality
You can use a BRIX refractometer to test your colostrum quality. BRIX readings of over 22 percent indicate high quality immunoglobulin colostrum. You can start by testing the pooled colostrum. If this is of poor quality you will need to test individual cows as they will give very different results. Testing individual cows only takes 5 seconds using a BRIX refractometer and can be easily worked into your management protocols.
To combat FPT, regardless of your management system, test to ensure your calves are getting enough high quality colostrum within the first 24 hours of life.
Best practice management of calves
Feed new born calves 10 percent of their bodyweight (4 for a 40kg calf) of “gold” colostrum within the first 6 to 12 hours of life11. It’s most effective to give smaller feeds more frequently (i.e. two feeds within the first 12 hours of life).
Test the quality of colostrum from individual cows and only feed new born calves gold colostrum from cows that have BRIX readings of over 22 percent. If pooling colostrum, select only healthy cows. Be aware that pooling colostrum increases the risk of infecting calves with contagious diseases such as Johnes.
Use hot soapy water to clean all equipment and buckets, as this will remove colostrum fatty residues leading to bacterial contamination.
Store colostrum in a lidded drum or vat and stir regularly. Ideally, colostrum should be refrigerated (at 4°C)18 12.
If refrigeration is not possible, add a chemical preservative agent to the colostrum, such as potassium sorbate at a rate of 1 percent by volume of a 50 percent solution. Colostrum should be fed within two to three days of collection.
Continuing to feed colostrum to calves beyond the initial 24 hours (after the calf gut ‘closes’) may also have advantages, as immunoglobulin can bind to infectious agents in the gut, limiting disease prevalence and severity13, 14. It is also a highly nutritious feed.
Vaccinating your herd three to six weeks before planned start of calving with a product such as Rotavec or Scourguard will boost specific antibody levels in colostrum.
1. Tyler, J. W., S. M. Parish, T. E. Besser, D. C. Van Metre, G. M. Barrington, and J. R. Middleton. 1999. Detection of low serum immunoglobulin concentration in clinically ill calves. Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine 13: 40-43.
2. Wesselink, R., K. J. Stafford, F. J. Mellor, S. Todd, and N. G. Gregory. 1999. Colostrum intake by dairy calves. New Zealand Veterinary Journal 47: 31-34.
3. Beam, A. L., J. E. Lombard, C. A. Kopral, L. P. Garber, A. L. Winter, J. A. Hicks, and J. L. Schlater. 2009. Prevalence of failure of passive transfer of immunity in newborn heifer calves and associated management practices on US dairy operations. Journal of Dairy Science 92: 3973-3983.
4. Bielmann, V., J. Gillan, N. R. Perkin, A. L. Skidmore, S. Godden, and K. E. Leslie. 2010. An evaluation of Brix refractometry instruments for measurement of colostrum quality in dairy cattle. Journal of Dairy Science 93: 3713-3721.
5. Trotz-Williams, L. A., K. E. Leslie, and A. S. Peregrine. Passive immunity in Ontario dairy calves and investigation of its association with calf management practices. Journal of Dairy Science 91: 3840-3849.
6. Cuttance, E. L., W. A. Mason, K. S. Denholm, and R. A. Laven. 2016. Comparison of tests for determining the prevalence of FPT in New Zealand dairy calves. Submitted to New Zealand Veterinary Journal
7. Godden, S. M., D. J. Smolenski, M. Donahue, J. M. Oakes, R. Bey, S. Wells, S. Sreevatsan, J. Stabel, and J. Fetrow. 2012. Heat treated colostrum and reduced morbidity in preweaned dairy calves: Results of a randomised trial and examination of mechanisms of effectiveness. Journal of Dairy Science 95: 4029-4040.
8. Morrill, K. M., E. Conrad, A. Lago, J. Campbell, J. Quigley, and H. Tyler. 2012. Nationwide evaluation of quality and composition of colostrum on dairy farm in the United States. Journal of Dairy Science 95: 3997-4005.
9. Morin, D. E., P. D. Constable, F. P. Maunsell, and G. C. McCoy. 2001. Factors associated with colostral specific gravity in dairy cows. Journal of Dairy Science 84: 937-943.
10. Bartier, A. L., M. C. Windeyer, and L. Doepel. 2015. Evaluation of on-farm tools for colostrum quality measurement. Journal of Dairy Science 98: 1878-1884.
11. Vermunt, J. 2002. Calf rearing Part 1: Principles of calf rearing from birth to weaning. Vetscript 15(4): 4-6.
12. Stewart, S., S. Godden, R. Bey, P. Rapnicki, J. Fetrow, R. Farnsworth, M. Scanlon, Y. Arnold, L. Clow, K. Mueller, and C. Ferrouillet. 2005. Preventing bacterial contamination and proliferation during the harvest, storage and feeding of fresh bovine colostrum. Journal of Dairy Science 88: 2572-2578.
13. Lorenz, I., J. F. Mee, B. Earley, and S. J. More. 2011. Calf health from birth to weaning. I. General aspects of disease prevention. Irish Veterinary Journal 64: 10.
14. McDougall, S., and A. Cullum. 1999. Effect of feeding colostrum of high immunoglobulin content on calf growth rates and disease. Proceedings of the Society of Dairy Cattle Veterinarians of the NZVA Annual Conference, pp. 33-45.
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