Tips to give calves a good start

Fall calving season is right around the corner. As producers prepare for another round of calves to enter their herds, there are some steps farmers can take to ensure newborn calves get off to the right start.

Keep Colostrum Replacer and Supplement on Hand

Before calving season begins make sure you have emergency supplies on hand. One important supply is colostrum replacer and colostrum supplement. Ideally the calf receives the colostrum from its momma, but if that is not the case, it is imperative to have a colostrum substitute readily available.

Livestock specialists advise producers to check their colostrum supply to see if they purchased replacer or supplement because there is an important difference. “Some feed stores don’t even carry the colostrum replacers. So, most folks see colostrum and they see a picture of a calf and think that is what they need,” Elizabeth MacConnell Picking, University of Missouri Extension Livestock Specialist, said. 

The difference between colostrum replacer and colostrum supplement is the number of immunoglobulins (IgGs) contained in the product. IgGs are antibodies that help protect calves from scours, respiratory problems and other illnesses. 

Calves that do not receive any colostrum from their momma at birth, will need the colostrum replacer. The replacer contains 150 to 200 grams of IgGs, which is what a newborn calf needs to build immunity. The colostrum supplement typically contains 50 grams of IgGs, which is appropriate for a calf that may have received some colostrum from its momma, appears weak or needs a little boost. 

In order for the calf to receive the health benefits of colostrum, it must ingest colostrum preferably within the first 12 hours of life, and no longer than 24 hours after birth. “In that first 12 hours it is a really critical time where their gut is open to receive those bigger proteins,” Picking explained. “The immunoglobulins or IgGs are like proteins and they are larger in structure, so a calf’s gut has to be able to receive those larger proteins and that’s only about a 12-hour period.”

Picking added that in some cases calves can absorb the IgGs up to 24 hours after they are born. However, to ensure calves get the best chance of receiving all the health benefits from colostrum, the sooner they ingest it the better. 

Livestock specialists also suggest producers purchase injectable vitamin B12 for calving season. “If a calf is born and seems weak or just not doing right you can give injectable B12,” Picking stated. “It is a safe thing to do that can help some of those weaker calves.”

Keep Calves on Clean Pasture 

Another tactic to protect the health of newborn calves is to provide clean pastures for them. Rotating calves and their mommas a week or two after they are born to different pasture, will protect the calves and keep the calving pastures cleaner for the next calves yet to be born. “Being on a pasture with a lot of manure may cause them to get scours,” Picking said. “So, if we can get those one-week-old calves or two-week-old calves out on to fresh, clean pasture, then they are not potentially more exposed to manure and that sort of thing, then we can help avoid scours in those calves.”

Keep Cows and First-Calf Heifers in Good Condition

A management practice that will go a long way to guarantee calves hit the ground running is to first take care of the cow. Animals that calve with solid body condition are in the best position to deliver and raise a healthy calf. 

Livestock specialists suggest females should calve at a body condition score of five or higher. “To give a calf the best start possible ensure that the mother is in an extremely healthy condition, which includes great body condition score, adequate nutrition and mineral supplementation,” Earl Ward, NE Area Livestock Specialist with Oklahoma State University Extension, said. “This all translates into a healthy calf at birth and great colostrum quality.” 

Additionally, producers may want to consider giving extra care to first-calf heifers. 

The first-calf heifer is still growing herself, lactating and working to raise a calf. Her nutritional requirements are higher than more seasoned cows. 

“I always advise keeping first-calf heifers separate as long as possible, at least until you get them rebred if not later,” Ward explained.

Ward also recommends producers with fall calving herds to start planning pasture rotations for separating lactating cows from dry cows in order to save on supplementation.


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