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Make sure calves get the colostrum they need

University of Calgary animal health professor offers her tips on how to assess a situation and when to intervene

Many beef calves are not getting enough colostrum at birth, and the fallout can be drastic and last a lifetime.

That’s why it’s important that calves consume some colostrum within the first four hours of life, said Claire Windeyer, assistant professor of production animal health at the University of Calgary.

The probability that a calf will consume colostrum can be determined by two factors: suckling reflex and calving ease.

When births are assisted by producers, calves are often less likely to consume colostrum. One of Windeyer’s grad students found that calves with a weak suckle reflex were 42 times more likely to fail to consume colostrum. The suckling reflex of a calf can be assessed 10 minutes after the animal is born.

“It’s a pretty good predictor and a quick and easy test that you can do after the calf hits the ground,” Windeyer said during a Beef Cattle Research Council webinar. “It tells you about the risk of that calf failing to get up and consume colostrum within four hours.”

Calves born without an assist had a 14 per cent chance of failing to consume colostrum on their own. Easy assists had a 40 per cent chance of failing to consume colostrum, and difficult ones had a 64 per cent failure rate.

But the suckle reflex influences those numbers.

Unassisted calves with a strong suckle reflex had an eight per cent chance of failing to consume colostrum, a number that didn’t really worry Windeyer. But calves born unassisted with a weak suckle reflex were 78 per cent likely to fail to consume colostrum on their own within four hours.

Calves born with an easy assist from a producer and a strong suckle reflex were 26 per cent likely to fail to consume colostrum while those with a weak suckle reflex had a 94 per cent chance of failing to consume colostrum on their own.

“That’s an indicator that we should be getting in there and should be doing something, (even) if it is late at night and you want to go to bed,” she said.

It might be a good idea to bottle feed the calf with colostrum if the cow is agreeable.

In the case of difficult assists — such as when a producer assists a birth with a calf puller — even a calf born with a strong suckle reflex will fail to consume colostrum about 50 per cent of the time.

“If the suckle reflex is weak, they will not consume colostrum on their own. These calves need assistance off the bat and there is not much point in waiting.”

Because of the risk of Johne’s, Windeyer does not recommend feeding dairy colostrum to beef cattle nor bringing in dairy cattle to a beef herd. Instead, use high-quality, sanitized colostrum products for beef cattle, she said.

About the author

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Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."

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