Does your colostrum make the grade?

25 May, 2017 09:57 AM
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Colostrum must be administered to calves as soon as possible after birth.
Only 23 per cent of colostrum samples in a study were suitable.
Colostrum must be administered to calves as soon as possible after birth.

Modern consumers are becoming increasingly conscious of where their food is grown, how it is produced, the nutritional value of the food and how the animals which produce that food are treated.

This rise in consumer consciousness is one of the reasons that in the United States more than 90 per cent of milk now comes from farms participating in independently audited animal welfare programs.

These programs give consumers confidence that they are buying products produced on farms that which have high animal welfare, antibiotic use and environmental standards.

Overseas, dairyfarmers, with assistance and support from various stakeholders including processors, are changing farm management practices to achieve the highest standard of animal care and of environmental and antibiotic stewardship.

The benefits of the management changes are contented cows that are efficient converters of feed to milk, reduced reliance on antibiotics as management tools, a healthy environment as well as ethical animal treatment able to withstand scrutiny from consumers.

This consumer demand for improved farm animal welfare conditions is already forcing Australian milk processors to follow the example set by milk companies in the US, United Kingdom and Europe.

The overseas programs encourage the:

Development of formal veterinary-client relationships.

Development of formal animal health plans.

Completion of training in basic stock handling by all employees who work with animals.

Ongoing training of employees in the relevant area of animal husbandry.

Annual signing by staff of animal care ethics agreements.

It is probable that within a few years, 90 per cent of Australian milk will be coming from farms that participate in audited stewardship programs. So, what are the on-farm animal welfare implications of the implementation of this type of program in Australia?

As a generalisation, I would say that Australian dairy cows have less welfare issues than cows in other countries. We do not have the foot and leg problems seen in cows housed on concrete. Certainly, we do not have the questionable ethics of having cows restricted for life in tie stalls or filthy, muck-ridden pens as I have seen in some overseas countries. Our cows are able to exhibit their natural behaviours of running, lying in the sun and grazing fresh grass.

The one area that I consider the Australian dairy industry can do better is calf management and this is one area that will be addressed in animal welfare programs.

Growing out all calves

Progressive Australian dairies have already made the commitment to grow out their surplus calves for beef or replacements for sale. It is likely that soon all dairies will be obliged to either rear surplus dairy calves or sell them directly to a rearer to be grown out. Sending calves to market or to trucking them hundreds of kilometres to slaughter at five days old will be a thing of the past. Both these practices put calves at risk of inhumane treatment, which is unethical and unacceptable to the average consumer.

If it is mandated that all calves must be reared, either for veal, beef or dairy replacements, the calves will need to have consumed sufficient colostrum to give the level of immunity required for survival. If they are to be sold, they must be "of merchantable quality", which means they must have adequate passive transfer of immunity. If they are to be reared on their farm of birth, the same applies because the welfare audits will be correlating births and deaths and if death rates are deemed too high, remedial action will need to be taken.

I have covered the subject of colostrum in previous articles but a recent research project conducted by Australian scientists made me think that it was time to discuss the topic further, in light of the probable increase in numbers of calves being reared.

Colostrum importance

It is common knowledge that calves are born without any immunity. They acquire immunity as neonates from antibodies in colostrum (passive immunity) and then they develop immunity through exposure to different pathogens as they age. This is active immunity. If calves do not receive sufficient passive immunity, their ability to survive is severely compromised.

In September 2016, the Journal of Dairy Science published the findings of a study of colostrum quality by a group of Victorian vets and scientists.

The study investigated:

*The colostrum storage and handling practices carried out on farm.

*The immunoglobulin concentration and bacterial composition of colostrum being fed to replacement dairy heifer calves.

*The percentage of colostrum being fed to replacement dairy heifer calves that meet industry recommendations.

*The risk factors for bacterial contamination of colostrum.

The study was carried out on 24 dairy farms located in central Victoria.

Ten colostrum samples were collected from each farm; each farm harvested and stored first-milking colostrum using their normal colostrum-handling procedures.

The overall results of the study were no surprise to me and probably not to the researchers.

Only 58 per cent of colostrum samples met the recommended industry standard of a total plate count (TPC) of less than 100,000 colony-forming units (cfu) per millilitre. This means that 42 per cent of the samples were so contaminated that they were potentially hazardous to calf health.

Surprisingly, 94 per cent of colostrum samples met the recommended industry standard of total coliform count (TCC) of 10,000 cfu/mL.

Only 46.7 per cent of samples reached the recommended level of greater than or equal to 22 per cent on a Brix refractometer. This means that more than 50 per cent did not have enough antibodies to convey the necessary level of immunity to calves.

When all the current industry recommendations for TPC, TCC and Brix refractometer measurement of colostrum quality were combined, only 23 per cent of the samples in this study were suitable to provide the required level of nutrition and immunity to calves.

There is no reason to think that colostrum quality is any different in other areas of the country. Therefore, unless farmers are really paying attention to colostrum collection, handling and storage, less than a quarter of their colostrum is likely to be of acceptable quality.

This figure has quite serious implications for calf health and lifetime milk production. The findings of this research project support my experiences, which suggest that many dairies do not handle colostrum well.

The biology of cows and calves is immutable, therefore to achieve acceptable health and welfare outcomes, management practices must be modified to accommodate the calves' natural biological processes.

Thinking that it is too hard to bring a fresh cow in and milk her within a couple of hours of calving is not going to stop the decline in that cow's colostrum quality.

Leaving colostrum sitting in a test bucket on the dairy floor because it is too hard to comply with best practice colostrum management recommendations will not stop that colostrum becoming contaminated to the extent that it is lethal for calves.

The 4 Qs of colostrum management are Quality, Quantity, Quickly and Quietly. Inadequate colostrum intake has a strong correlation with high morbidity and mortality rates in young calves, increased cull rates prior to second lactation and failure to reach genetic potential for milk production.

Quality: calves should receive a sufficient quantity of good quality, clean colostrum with high antibody levels.

Quantity: colostrum should be administered as a single feed at the rate of 10 per cent of body weight.

Quickly: colostrum must be administered to calves as soon as possible after birth.

Quietly: calves which are stressed at the time of colostrum administration will absorb less antibodies than relaxed calves.

Quality: Colostrum quality starts to decline even as the cow gives birth; this means that the sooner after calving that colostrum can be collected, the more likely it is to be high quality. Clean calving areas, adequate udder preparation, early milking of the cow and adherence to correct storage and handling procedures will ensure a supply of high-quality colostrum.

Quantity: 10 per cent of body weight means that a 25-kilogram calf needs a minimum of 2.5 litres and a 50kg calf needs five litres. If there is spare colostrum it can be given as a second feed but it is important to get that initial dose of antibodies into the calf early.

Quickly: A calf's ability to absorb vital immunoglobulins starts to decline from the moment of birth. After 24 hours, its ability to absorb antibodies has dropped to virtually zero. A subsequent feed of high-quality colostrum can be given but it is really important to give the first feed as early as possible, preferably within the first two hours of life.

Quietly: As anyone who has tubed a young calf with colostrum will know, quietly is not always possible. Newborn calves have an amazing survival instinct that drives them to vigorously fight off any perceived attack. Minimising the stress of other activities, such as transport and separation from the dam will help improve the success of passive transfer.

There are many ways calf management results can be altered to work with the biology of calves, rather than letting calves suffer or die because of reactionary management practices. Society's views on what was considered ethically acceptable 50 years ago has changed and consumers have a powerful voice in promoting change for the better.

*Jeanette Fisher runs an independent dairy heifer advisory service, Heifermax and can be contacted through her website www.heifermax.com.au.

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