Vet Column 11-15-10 |

Vet Column 11-15-10

David L. Morris, DVM, Ph.D.
Fort Collins, Colo.

Colostrum, or first milk following calving, is important for ingestion and absorption in calves immediately after birth. Colostrum, containing antibodies to combat disease and to also provide energy to enhance survival, is absorbed through the intestinal wall via a process called passive transfer of immunity. Active immunity is associated with a foreign protein, or germ, entering the body, generally through the skin, and the body subsequently then develops its own antibodies. Lack of sufficient transfer of antibodies via colostrum at birth leads to failure of passive transfer.

Failure of passive transfer in calves has been associated with an increased risk of death during the first three months after birth. Calves with inadequate colostral uptake at birth have also been associated with a decreased rate of weight gain, less milk production as an adult female, and a decreased survival rate until end of the first lactation. Failure of passive transfer of colostral immunoglobulins is responsible for approximately half of calf deaths on U.S. dairy farms – 35 percent to 40 percent of U.S. dairy calves have inadequate passive transfer of colostral immunoglobulins.

Colostrum administration practices that affect serum immunoglobulin concentrations in calves include the timing of colostrum administration, volume of colostrum fed, method of administration, timing of colostral collection, colostral concentration, and dam parity. Researchers from the University of Missouri recently published data investigating the use of an oroesophageal tube (feeder) for administering colostrum at birth and the effect of timing and volume on level of serum antibody at 48 hours after birth in dairy calves.

Holstein bull calves (120) only were used in this study and all were born at the University of Missouri Foremost Teaching and Research Dairy. Only calves whose births were observed were included in the study. Twin calves were excluded. After calving, each calf was immediately separated from the dam, weighed, and assigned a unique identification number. Calf dams were milked by use of a portable milking machine within two hours after calving, serving as the source of colostrum for each calf. Equal numbers of calves received 1, 2, 3, or 4 liters of their dam’s colostrum via esophageal feeder. Each calf only received colostrum once at either 2, 6, 10, 14, 18, or 22 hours after birth. Thereafter, all calves were fed 2 liters of a commercial milk replacer every 12 hours. Blood samples were taken from each calf at 48 hours after birth to determine absorption efficiency.

Important results from this study indicated that concentration of colostrum from first, second, and third or greater lactation Holstein cows was 65 to 70 gms/liter. The average amount of colostrum obtained from the 120 Holstein cows in this study was around 2.0-2.5 gallons. Concentration of colostrum in this herd did not differ from first calf heifers to older cows in this study; thus, do not automatically throw away colostrum from first calf heifers without knowing the concentration of immunoglobulin. Calf birth weight did not influence serum immunoglobulin concentrations at 24 or 48 hours after birth, which is consistent with other studies. Assistance at calving did not affect concentrations of immunoglobulin at 48 hours after birth.

Data from this study indicate that three liters of colostrum be provided via esophageal feeder within two hours after birth for optimum immunoglobulin transfer. Providing colostrum via esophageal feeder after this time period requires larger volumes and more frequent feedings within the first 24 hours of life to minimize failure of passive transfer in dairy calves. It is recommended that no more than 5 percent of body weight (2-1/2 quarts to a 100 pound calf) be administered at any one time. A goal of 10 percent failure of passive transfer in dairy calves is reasonable.

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