Tips for healthy calves

Keeping newborn calves dry and clean is easier said than done, but is worth the effort. Dry calves are warmer, healthier and grow better. Wet calves lose body heat rapidly, and use a lot of energy just to maintain body temperature. Weakened calves are more susceptible to calfhood diseases. Keeping calves dry is easier in a sheltered, bedded and well-drained calving area, or if the herd is spread out on pasture during calving. This also reduces the risk that calves will consume manure from dirty udders or off the ground. Manure can contain bacteria that cause diseases such as scours and Johne’s disease.

Colostrum is key. Colostrum is critical because calves are born with very low immunity. In addition to energy, protein and vitamins, colostrum is a very concentrated source of several compounds that provide immune defences to protect the newborn calf until its immune system develops. Calves that do not receive colostrum are more susceptible to disease. A calf needs to consume at least 5% of its body weight in colostrum (i.e. a minimum of one half gallon for a 100 lb calf) within a few hours of birth.

Use caution when obtaining supplemental colostrum: Colostrum from your own herd may be preferable, since cows in your herd have developed resistance to diseases present on your operation. Keep in mind that colostrum from first calf heifers or thin cows is of lower quality than colostrum from mature cows in good body condition.

Colostrum can also contain disease causing bacteria, including the one that causes Johne’s disease. This bacterium is believed to infect very young calves, but the disease does not develop until the animal is several years old. Cows with active Johne’s disease have intermittent, watery diarrhea. In late stages of the disease they rapidly lose weight and body condition even though they have a good appetite. There is no vaccine or treatment for Johne’s disease, and diagnostic tests are poor. Johne’s disease is more common in dairy than beef cattle, but producers are strongly advised not to use colostrum from any herds or cows that have had Johne’s disease or display these symptoms. Good quality commercial colostrum products are highly recommended instead.

A variety of commercial colostrum supplements can be purchased at vet clinics, farm supply stores and feed dealers. One Saskatoon-based colostrum company has developed a method of processing colostrum that retains the antibodies but destroys bacteria. Colostrum products processed this way cost more than competing products, but can be more effective at preventing calfhood disease, and cost a lot less than trying to get rid of Johne’s disease in the long run.

Do the dishes. Supplemental colostrum (or electrolytes given to scouring calves) will be much more effective if clean bottles, nipples and tubes are used. After each use, wash utensils using hot water (at least 50oC or 120oF), plus bleach or a sanitizing soap (such as Hibitane or an iodine soap). After washing, rinse with warm water and dry utensils by allowing them to individually drain on a rack or shelf.