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Acton: Timing of colostrum intake impacts calf health and future growth potential

Written by Saige

Andy Acton of Deep South Animal Clinic in Ogema, Saskatchewan, Canada tells cow/calf producers that it’s important to make sure calves nurse quickly. 

“I have 40 cows myself that I calve out, and once had a situation where an old cow made up her bag just before she calved,” he describes. “When I went into the barn after she calved, it looked like the calf had sucked one quarter. I thought he was off to a good start. Later, I looked at that pair again and wasn’t sure it happened the way I thought, because the other three quarters were still full.”

When he further check out the cow, the quarter of her bag that Acton thought the calf has sucked was blind and had produced no milk. By then, the calf was 14 hours old, and had never had anything to eat. 

Colostrum intake

Even in a well-managed herd, there may be some calves that don’t get as much colostrum as they should, Acton says, noting, in some situations the calf is unable to get any colostrum at all. 

Whether the result is from a heifer that won’t allow the calf to the udder, a calf that doesn’t suck, frostbitten teats or other factors, the importance of getting colostrum into calves remains a high priority. 

“I checked the calf’s blood levels, and it had no antibodies. I fed the calf two liters of colostrum, waited two hours and gave him two more liters,” Acton describes, noting he repeated the process until the calf’s blood levels were normal in terms of protein measurement. 

“Even though the calf was older, we made up for the lack of percentage absorption with extra volume,” says Acton. 

“Sometimes we can make up for being a little delayed, by giving the calf a little more. A person has to be careful doing that, however,” he says. “We don’t want to overfeed a weak calf that might regurgitate.”

Impacts

If colostrum intake is managed to ensure the calf consumes enough colostrum, health and performance for the calf are improved as it grows, Acton says.

  “Some years ago, we tested a group of about 1,000 calves from several different farms,” he explains. “We blood tested the calves to measure antibody level as one of the measures of whether they nursed or not.”

The bottom 20 percent of calves were marked with a failing score for antibody levels, meaning they probably did not get as much colostrum immediately after birth.  

  “Later, those calves weighed about 30 to 40 pounds less at weaning than the other calves. This lower weight was not due to sickness. They just didn’t perform as well,” says Acton.

Better start

Calves get off to a better start if they have adequate colostrum soon after birth. Management of colostrum intake is up to producers.

“In extensive operations where cattle are calving in large areas and with range cows, this would be difficult,” Acton acknowledges. “Those cows are generally on their own. With that kind of setup, we want really good calf vigor – calves that can get right up and suckle quickly.”

At the same time, range calving is particularly susceptible to negative impacts from severely cold weather, he says, noting cows have to be in particularly good health with adequate nutrition to have strong, healthy calves.

“Calf vigor at birth is the key to success on many ranch operations,” he comments. “It requires good nutrition with the cows in good shape and all the vitamins and minerals needed, in a good supplementation program. Then, the calf has a good chance to be vigorous at birth, especially if calves are not at the heavy end of birthweight.” 

Considerations

Calving in warmer weather is an advantage because the calf doesn’t get chilled and has a longer time to work at trying to suckle before he gets too cold and gives up, Acton says, noting there are some advantages to calving later, particularly for operations where cows calve unassisted. 

“When producers want the cows to take care of calving on their own, they have to accept a certain amount of loss,” he says. “There is definite benefit to making sure every calf suckled an adequate amount of colostrum, soon enough, but this requires more labor. The rancher has to weigh these alternatives.”

“It is frustrating to deal with calves in ill health that didn’t get a good start. It is difficult if they don’t have the antibodies in place and can be an uphill battle with some of those sick calves,” he says.

Alternatives to colostrum intake

“There are some things that can be done when we know calves didn’t suckle soon enough,” Acton offers.

Acton continues plasma or blood transfusions, especially for high-value calves, can be an option. 

“It’s much simpler, however, to try to work within that window of time after birth and make sure the calf suckles enough colostrum,” he says.

Heather Smith Thomas is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..