Helping Calves Survive This Stressful Season

In the Upper Midwest, spring calving can prove challenging with unpredictable weather bringing frigid temperatures and mud. Therefore, as beef producers do their best to tend to newborn calves and help get them off on the right hoof, sometimes plans don’t go right and a backup plan is needed. Here’s some tips to navigate calf health products that might be handy this calving season.

Colostrum

The first milk a dam produces after calving is called colostrum which is highly concentrated in antibodies or immunoglobulins such as IgG. Newborn calves need to receive colostrum within 12 to 24 hours after birth to obtain passive immunity from the dam as antibodies are not transferred across the placenta during gestation. It is recommended that beef calves receive 2 – 3 quarts of colostrum within the first 24 hours of life. But what options are available when this first milk is not available?

Colostrum Replacers & Supplements

The best colostrum replacement out there is one usually not found in the store, but in your freezer. If colostrum can be sourced from well vaccinated, disease free herd, it can be frozen in quart size freezer bags for future use. Thawing frozen colostrum should be done slowly by placing the bag in warm water (110 F) and stirring every five minutes until warmed to 104 – 110 F (this will take about 40 minutes). Do not use a microwave oven as overheating proteins in the colostrum will cause them to denature and deliver little immunity to the newborn calf.

Commercial colostrum replacements can be purchased in products with greater than 100 g of IgG per dose. Colostrum supplements are also available and will have less than 100 g of IgG per dose (normally 50 g). How do producers decide between using a colostrum replacement versus a supplement? If maternal colostrum is entirely unavailable, a replacement product should be used. However, if some maternal colostrum is available to the newborn but not an adequate amount (2 – 3 L) a colostrum supplement can help make up the difference. Price is reflected in the different options as colostrum replacements provide more IgG and will be more expensive, but both will help ensure successful passive transfer of immunity and nutrients during the first 24 h of a calf’s life.

Other Products

Oral calf paste/gel products that come in 30 mL tubes have become popular in recent years as an easy way to provide additional nutrients to newborn calves. But do these pastes provide the same immunity as colostrum? Calf pastes will vary in design to provide all or some of the following supplements: energy, vitamins, minerals, E.coli prevention, probiotics and lactic acid to name a few. Note that these are not colostrum replacements or supplements; therefore; it is important to not substitute one for the other based on calf needs. If a calf needs a small burst of energy on a cold day or appetite stimulation, these paste may be a convenient option for producers. Yet, long term benefits are not the goal of these products.

Electrolyte solutions should be used to provide fluid to calves that have scours. Source electrolytes that contain vitamins and minerals, especially sodium, potassium, chloride and bicarbonate, in addition to electrolytes. A dose of electrolytes should contain 2 quarts of fluid and be repeated every 2 – 6 hours as needed. As electrolytes are not a complete nutrient replacer, some energy and protein supplements may be necessary if the calf is not nursing consistently. As long as the calf is not in severe dehydration, nursing does not prolong or worsen diarrhea. Keep in mind that the gut healing process is still taking place after scours have stopped; therefore, continued treatment is important for full recovery.

The Bottom Line

Calf products are not the main place that emphasis should be placed when preparing for calving season. Year long, producers should be evaluating their management program in regards to providing proper nutrition for the dam during gestation, body condition going into calving season and prime management of both dam and calf at birth by providing dry clean calving areas. However, when the stars don’t align, make sure you know what products are available and which ones will be handy to have on the shelf this calving season. For assistance in preparing a calving barn health kit, visit with your veterinarian or beef extension specialists so you have options ready when newborn calves are in need.

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