By: Mike Boersma, Extension Educator & 4-H Program Director, Murray & Pipestone Counties
Calving season may be a couple months off for some beef producers, but it is already underway for many others. In either case, as the 2013 calf crop arrives, many producers will be searching for ways to keep newborn calves warm and dry.
A healthy start for newborn calves is crucial. And, the first step to having healthy calves is finding a place where they can be warm, dry, and comfortable. At times, finding a warm, dry place at calving time may seem like a daunting task. In addition, no matter how much advanced planning and preparation go into calving season, there will inevitably be those couple of calves that find themselves in less than ideal conditions at a young age.
Two of the most important things for calves born in these conditions are proper naval care and adequate colostrum intake. Proper naval care involves treating the naval by dipping or spraying it with iodine or another disinfectant solution to prevent infection. This should be done to all calves soon after birth but becomes more critical to calves that may be born in wet conditions because the risk of infection is much greater.
Undoubtedly, the most important factor in newborn calf survival is colostrum intake as soon as possible after birth. Colostrum contains important nutrients and antibodies to give calves energy and to fight off disease and infection.
There is no specific recommendation for how soon the calf needs to receive colostrum, because sooner is always better in this case. A calf's digestive system has specific receptors that aid in digestion and absorption of the antibodies in colostrum and these receptors begin to shut down soon after birth. In fact, just 12-18 hours after birth, many of these receptors have already shut down and it becomes increasingly difficult for antibodies in colostrum to be utilized by the calf.
There are a few practices that will help to ensure all calves receive colostrum. First, calves with a difficult birth will generally be slower to recover and may need to be bottle-fed stored colostrum. While it is best to use the mother's colostrum or frozen colostrum from a cow in your own herd to ensure the "right" antibodies for your farm, this is not always possible. If this is the case, colostrum from your neighbor or from the dairy farm down the road or a commercially available supplement is definitely better than nothing at all. Also, calves with no apparent health problems may not nurse a cow with a dirty udder. So cows should be kept as clean as possible prior to calving and as they calve, be sure to monitor the cleanliness of the udder to give the calf the best chance of nursing.
While there may not be any magical cure for calves in cold or wet conditions, paying attention to the details is beneficial. Remember the basics of newborn calf care and realize that these basic practices are even more important in challenging environments. Now is the time to plan ahead. Check your calving supplies to make sure you have everything on-hand, including either frozen colostrum or a suitable commercial supplement. A little preparation now could help reduce sickness, infection, death loss, and stress in the coming months.