beef calves & colstrum

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Well-known member
Jan 20, 2007
LaRue, Ohio
Beef Calves and Colostrum - Steve Boyles and Bill Shulaw, The Ohio State University Extension

Colostrum is the most important meal a calf will ever have. Colostrum is referred to as "first milk", but this is actually much more similar to blood than milk. Colostrum contains 22 percent solids, compared to 12 percent solids in normal whole cow's milk. Besides being very high in immunoglobulns (Ig) for disease and infection prevention, it is a source of energy, vitamins, white blood cells and growth factors.

A calf's immune system is not fully developed at birth. The immunity a calf attains by consuming colostrum is called passive immunity. Passive immunity is that which is received passively from an outside source; conversely. The calf must rely on colostrum from the cow until its own active immune system is totally functional (about 1 to 2 months of age).

Timing of Colostrum: For colostrum to be most effective, the calf should receive 1 quart within six hours after birth and a total of 2 to 3 quarts within 12 hours of birth. After this time the gut, specifically the intestines, begins to "close" and it becomes more difficult for the calf to absorb the antibodies found in the colostrum. Calves that fail to achieve the benefits of this first meal are considered to have Failure of Passive Transfer (FPT). A correlation exists between the incidence of FPT and calf illness and death. Attainment of adequate passive immunity is often associated with blood IgG concentrations > 10 g/L at 24 h of age. The incidence of calf death is increased when blood Ig levels fall below this threshold . A healthy calf which has access to liquid feed or has consumed colostrum will undergo complete gut closure by about 24 hours of age.

Quality and Quantity: Dr. Steve Loerch indicated during the 2006 Ohio Beef Heifer Development Short Courses that cows on a higher plane of nutrition produce more colostrum than cows on a low plane of nutrition. If cows are in adequate body condition score (BCS) prior to calving, quality of colostrum is generally not a problem. Heifers should be in BCS 6.5 - 7.0 and cows in BCS 5.5 - 6.0 precalving. Mature cows produce more colostrums than heifers. Quality can be assessed with commercial test kits available through your veterinarian or with use of a colostrometer.

Deciding to use Supplemental Colostrum: Calves should be observed to be up and nursing within two hours of birth. To decide whether or not to hand-feed colostrum to a newborn beef calf, ask yourself the following questions:

1) Is the calf too weak to suckle soon after birth?

2) Has the cow abandoned the calf or refused the calf access to suckle?

3) Has the calf experienced a difficult birth or been exposed to bad weather that might interfere with its ability to suckle?

If you answer yes to any of these questions, you may wish to supplemental. Under extensive grazing situations, administer at least a single fluid feeding so that the calf is handled at least once. In this case, it is important to use an esophageal feeder.

The esophageal feeder is a long, narrow, rigid tube, which is inserted down the esophagus. A bottle or bag attached to the other end of the tube. The use of an esophageal feeder has been associated with a slight decrease in the efficiency of Ig absorption but it provides a quick and simple method for ensuring delivery of Ig to newborn calves.

How much colostrum does a calf need? As a general rule of thumb, a calf should receive 5 to 6 percent of its body weight as colostrum within the first six hours of life. That same amount should be fed again when the calf is about 12 hours old. Colostrum weighs approximately 8 pounds per gallon. For an 80-pound calf, this equates to approximately 2 quarts (4 pounds) of colostrum per feeding. A way to remember the volume/time equation is 2 x 6 and 4 x 12. In a calf under 75#, give 2 - 3 quarts and for calves over 75#, give 3 - 4 quarts soon after birth.

Handling and storing colostrum: For optimum results, colostrum should be collected from cows within 24 hours of calving and fed fresh. Colostrum can be collected at calving, stored frozen for up to a year. Ways to collect colostrums is to: (1) milk out a cow that loses her calf for non-disease reasons or (2) take a small amount of colostrum (about a pint) from numerous cows that have a more than adequate supply of colostrums.

Colostrum should be frozen in pints or quarts for easy thawing. Colostrum can be stored in sealable bags. Colostrum should not be thawed and refrozen.

Ideally, colostrum is thawed in warm water not in the microwave. Correct thawing is important to prevent colostrum from being damaged. Colostrum should be thawed slowly.

1) Place frozen colostrum and its container in a bath of warm water (110°F) and stir every 5 minutes. Add more hot water to the bath as the frozen colostrum cools the water. The colostrum should be warmed to 102 to 110°F. Do not thaw by running hot tap water over the container. Thawing time will vary depending on container size.

2) Thaw colostrum in a microwave oven. Set the oven at no more than 60 percent power for gentle thawing. Agitate or stir the colostrum frequently to assure even thawing and warming. This is important since many microwaves do not heat material evenly. Warm the colostrum to 104°F.

Commercial Colostrum: A number of commercial products that act as colostrum substitutes are available. Research studies with these products conducted at universities indicate that calves that received these products were healthier than those that received no colostrum at all; however, they did not receive the level of protection they would if fed frozen, stored colostrum. Look for products that have a a minimum of 60 grams of IgG per liter.

Biosecurity: If you obtain colostrum from another farm, you could be at a risk of obtaining a new disease for your farm. Johne's disease (pronounced "yo-knees", Myobacterium paratuberculosis) can be spread to your herd through infected colostrum. If you are using colostrum from another cow as a supplement, be sure the cow from which you get it is free of Johne's disease. A national study of US dairies, Dairy NAHMS 96, found that approximately 22 percent of US dairy farms have at least 10% of the herd infected with Johne's disease.

Summary: Calves that do not ingest enough high quality colostrum soon after birth are 3 times more likely to get sick and 5 times more likely to die later in life as compared to calves that receive adequate colostrum. If colostrum availability is limited, use a bovine-serum based commercial supplement either to fortify an existing colostrum source or to replace colostrum when none is available.

Managing the Environment for Controlling Scours - William P. Shulaw DVM, Extension Veterinarian

Calf scours is one of the most common animal health concerns of Ohio producers at this time of year. Various studies have suggested that scours are the cause of 15-20% of all calf deaths prior to weaning. Scours are caused by bacteria (E. coli, Salmonella spp., Clostridium perfringens), viruses (coronavirus, rotavirus) and protozoa (Cryptosporidium parvum, or "crypto", and in older calves - coccidia of the Eimeria spp.). Most of these infections are actually carried and spread in manure and on body surfaces by healthy-appearing adult cows. Disease results when management and environmental conditions favor their transmission and the calf's resistance is reduced. In fact many of these organisms are present on many, if not MOST, farms (dairy and beef) but may not cause enough loss to be recognized until conditions are favorable for an outbreak of scours. As an example, in an Ohio State study of Cryptosporidium on dairy farms, all four farms studied were infected, and over 85% of all calves on each farm became infected during the first 3 weeks of life. Calf scours were not identified as a significant problem except on one farm on which Salmonella in scouring calves was also identified. Other studies have revealed similar data. Reports of studies by the National Animal Health Monitoring System suggest that at least 40% of cow/calf operations have Cryptosporidia infections. Cold and wet weather, mud, overcrowding, poor sanitation, poor nutrition of the cows, and dystocia (or calving difficulty) are all factors that favor the development of scours.

When a scours outbreak occurs, producers often focus a great deal of labor and money on treatment of calves with fluids and antibiotics, but the environment may not be recognized as an important part of the problem. Once the first case of scours develops, even a clean environment often becomes extremely contaminated very quickly. Calves with E. coli scours may be shedding billions of bacteria in a single stool. A similar situation occurs with the viruses where it has been estimated that within three days of infection, a calf may be shedding 500,000,000,000 virus particles in a teaspoon of stool material. In our work with crypto, we measured the shedding of Cryptosporidium parvum as high as 17 million oocysts per cc of stool in some calves. With this organism, infection may occur with ingestion of as few as 10 oocysts. Cows carry scour-causing organisms on their udder, hair coat, and feet and legs and spread them around the environment ensuring that other susceptible calves are exposed unless something is done to reduce the potential for calf exposure.

Over the years, several strategies to limit environmental contamination and calf exposure to scours pathogens have been described. Because calves born to heifers are often more at risk, it is a good idea to feed and calve heifers in separate areas from the cowherd. Various strategies have suggested moving pregnant cows from the wintering area to a clean calving area one to two weeks before calving begins. If the herd is large and approximate breeding dates are known, dividing it into smaller, more manageable groups may be helpful. In one of these systems, producers are advised to move cow-calf pairs to different nursery areas within a day of calving and manage them as small groups. If scours breaks out in one of these groups, no new calves are added to the group and care is taken not to spread the contamination from that group by equipment or people. (People can be efficient spreaders of disease-causing organisms.) The idea is to try to limit the infection and pathogen load, as well as the labor of treatment, to one area. When the calves in these groups are three to four weeks old, they may then be moved to spring/summer grazing areas.

Over the last four to five years, Dr. David Smith and his colleagues at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln have developed and demonstrated the Sandhills Calving System (sometimes called the "Sandhills Shuffle") as a tool for preventing or reducing calf scours. The objective of this system is to prevent "effective contact" of calves with calf scours pathogens(germs). An effective contact is defined as an exposure of the calf to pathogens in a dose, or for a duration of time, sufficient to cause disease. In the Sandhills system, effective contacts are minimized by 1) segregating calves by age to prevent transmission of pathogens from older to younger calves; and 2) scheduled movement of pregnant cows to clean calving pastures. The overall idea is to re-create the more ideal conditions that are usually present at the start of calving season at each subsequent week of the calving season.

The system uses several clean pastures for calving rather than a high animal density lot or pasture. In practice, the cows are turned into the first pasture as soon as the first cow calves, and calving continues for two weeks. At the end of two weeks, the cows that have not calved are moved to a second pasture and the existing cow/calf pairs stay in the first pasture. After a week of calving in the second pasture, pregnant cows are again moved to a third pasture and the cows that calved remain in pasture two. Each subsequent week, cows that have not yet calved are moved to a new pasture thus distributing cows with calves within one week-of-age of each other in separate groups. Cattle from different pastures may be commingled after the youngest calf in a group is four weeks old. Generally, calves of this age are at low risk for scours.

The success of this system relies on two key principles. Age segregation of calves helps prevent the transmission of pathogens from older calves to younger calves and assists in management of scours outbreaks within groups if this does happen. The routine movement of pregnant cows to fresh calving pastures helps prevent the buildup of scours-causing germs in the calving environment that often leads to exposure of the youngest calves to overwhelming doses in more conventional systems where cow/calf pairs are not segregated.

Moving pregnant cows can be easier and less disruptive than moving cow/calf pairs, and each week the number of cows in the group that has to be watched for calving is reduced. If pregnancy examination information is available, cows that are expected to calve later in the calving season can be maintained as a separate group and added to the system as appropriate.

This system should be planned well ahead of the calving season to maximize its potential. It may be somewhat difficult for some farms to adopt it because of pasture, water, or shelter limitations. In addition, the planning has to take into account potential weather conditions likely to occur during the calving season and the potential for damage to pastures if it turns wet and muddy. However, with some "tweaking" of the system, many Ohio herd owners could develop a farm-specific plan that utilizes the basic principles of the Sandhills system. Combined with a sound nutrition program; an effective reproductive management program, including breeding soundness exams in bulls; a vaccination program; and a biosecurity program, the negative impact of calf scours can be minimized.

Late Gestation/early Lactation Nutrition - Rory Lewandowski, Extension Educator, Athens County

Recently I heard a conversation where a person was talking about calves that were being born dead or very weak. This person finished the conversation by saying that the cattle producer with the dead calves had been feeding only baled corn stalks to his cows. I hope that examples like this are the exception and not the rule in this year of short forage supplies, but it drives home the importance of nutrition and the hierarchy of nutrient use.

The maintenance needs of the beef cow, what is necessary to keep the animal alive and functioning, are always met before providing nutrients for fetus growth. In a pregnant heifer that should still be growing, the hierarchy of nutrient use is body maintenance, fetus growth/development and then body growth. When nutrients are not provided to the pregnant beef cow in sufficient quantity, fetal growth/development is going to suffer. Inadequate nutrition can lead to calves being born weak or calves being born dead.

It is important that the cattle producer have an understanding of late gestation and early lactation nutrient requirements at this time of year. The following table lists the nutrient requirements for a 1200 lb cow in the last month of gestation and then for the first two months of lactation, producing a peak milk of 20 lbs/day.

            Production Stage                                                                                              Ration or Nutrient Requirement

                                                                                                        Dry Matter Intake                            Crude Protein                    TDN
Late Gestation (last month)                                                                    24.6 lbs                                          9.0%                        57%
Early Lactation (20 lb peak milk)                                                              27-28 lbs                                    10-11%                          60-61%

(Source: NRC for beef cattle, 1996)

NRC requirements are minimal requirements. The need for crude protein (CP), and especially energy can increase as animal activity level increases and/or weather conditions (wet and/or cold) put added stress on the animal. In order to use this knowledge of nutrient requirements, the cattle producer must have some idea about the quality and nutrient content of the feedstuffs he/she is using.

Let's go back to the example I started this article with regarding the use of cornstalks. According to a couple of sources that I checked, cornstalks will provide 5 to 6% CP and around 50% TDN on average. If we compare the nutrient content of cornstalks to the nutrient requirements of a cow in late gestation it is obvious that both crude protein and energy will need to be supplemented in the ration. If this is ignored, it should not surprise us when the ending is not a happy one. Let's consider another example of a producer feeding a first cutting grass hay. I looked up the results of one such sample that came into the Athens Extension office and found a CP level of 10.3 and a TDN level of 59%. Comparing this hay nutrient content to cow nutrient requirements shows that this hay is probably fine through gestation, meeting the minimum CP and TDN requirements, but if it is the feed source for early lactation, then some additional protein and energy supplementation will be needed. In all cases, a good mineral supplement should be available to cows.

One final point that should be considered when forage is making up the bulk of the ration is the relationship of forage quality to dry matter intake. The dry matter intake listed in the table for late gestation figures out to a cow eating about 2% of her body weight in dry matter. That increases to about 2.3% of her body weight in early lactation. It will take average quality forage; at least as good as the first cut hay used as an example in this article, to get those types of intake. Low quality forage such as the cornstalk example, will limit dry matter intake. A dry cow may not be able to consume more than 1.5 % of her body weight, and a lactating cow no more than 2.0% of her body weight of a low quality forage. Without adequate dry matter intake, the nutrient deficiency is compounded.

In times when feedstuffs are expensive and all kinds of alternative feeds are being used in the cow ration, the cattle producer must understand the nutrient needs of the cow and balance that with a knowledge of what the feed ration is providing. To err by either under or over supplementing is costly not only in terms of out-of pocket dollars, but possibly in terms of cow health and productivity as well.

Weekly Roberts Agricultural Commodity Market Report - Mike Roberts, Commodity Marketing Agent, Virginia Tech

LIVE CATTLE futures on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) were mostly down on Monday with the exception of the FEB'09 and APR'09 contracts. The APR'08LC contract closed at $89.750/cwt, off $0.775/cwt and $2.900/cwt lower than last Monday. JUNE'08LC futures were up $0.500/cwt at $91.500/cwt but $2.875/cwt lower than a week ago. Prices were pressured by rising corn prices, June/April bear spreading, and lower cash prices. USDA's 5-area average price on Monday was placed at $90.360/cwt, off nearly $2.75/cwt. USDA on Monday raised the choice cutout by $1.09/cwt to $148.80/cwt. According to, the average beef plant margin for Monday was estimated at a negative $18.55/head, down $10.25/head from last Monday. Feed lot owners are reluctant to buy more feeders with rising corn and full lots already losing money. Cash sellers should sell cattle on rallies. It might be a good idea to hold off pricing corn inputs right now.

FEEDER CATTLE at the CME were down on Monday. MAR'08FC futures closed at $100.2/cwt, off $0.400/cwt and $1.475/cwt lower than a week ago. MAY'08FC futures were down $1.400/cwt $106.15/cwt but $1.200/cwt higher than last Monday. Cash feeders were slipping. The latest CME Feeder Cattle Index was placed at $101.06/cwt, down $0.73/cwt. Feeder cattle movement to lots is steady to firm and as feedlots lose more money they really don't want to buy anymore right now. It might not be such a good idea to price corn inputs until later in the week. It is a good time to hold onto cattle if you have a little grass.



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