Maximising calf survival

02 Jun, 2017 10:39 AM
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Ensuring new born calves receive the right amount of high quality colostrum is one of the keys to maximising their survival.
Caring for the naval and providing colostrum are priorities for the newborn calf.
Ensuring new born calves receive the right amount of high quality colostrum is one of the keys to maximising their survival.

There are three simple things farmers can do to maximise the health and survival of their calves. Getting these 'basic three' right can make an enormous difference to the health and long-term survival of their calves:

1. Naval care -- one study has shown that calf death rate more than halves for navels dipped (7 per cent death rate) versus not dipped (18 per cent death rate).

2. Colostrum -- enough of it, early enough.

3. Observation -- for general health and acting quickly

None of these is a new concept but naval care and colostrum are responsible for ensuring a good immune system and decreasing early infection.

1. Naval care.

The umbilical cord is basically a tube of blood vessels (two arteries and a vein) that leads to the bladder, the liver and the blood stream. If bacteria manage to climb up this they have easy access to the blood stream and can be carried about the body. They can lodge in any organ but the most common are:

  • The joints -- causing joint illness.
  • The brain -- causing meningitis.
  • The eye -- causing eye infection (hypopyon) -- looks like white custard inside the eyeball.
  • The naval itself -- hot, swollen, hard, oozy or smelly.
  • [bullets]Septacaemia or blood infection -- blood poisoning.

    Caring for the naval and providing colostrum are priorities for the newborn calf. Below are some tips to remember:

  • Clean dry environment for calving and calf pens decreases the number of bacteria around that can climb up the cord.
  • Naval disinfection. The most common are a 7.0 per cent iodine tincture, made of iodine mixed with an alcohol. The alcohol evaporates and helps to dry out the cord. The iodine is the disinfectant.
  • It is important NOT to use teat-dip iodine products as instead of alcohol, which is drying, they contain moisturising emollients designed to prevent teats from drying out. Teat dip will delay the cord-drying process. Other disinfectants can be used but ensure they are designed for navals.
  • Dip the entire cord right up to the belly, preferably in disposable paper/plastic cups to prevent spreading disease from one calf to the next. Do clean any dirt/bedding from the naval first. If the calf is newborn and still wet, then aim to repeat the dip once the calf is dry. Recheck in 24 hours and if the cord doesn't appear to have started to dry, dip it again. The navel can be sprayed instead of dipped (this prevents contamination of solution) but ensure full coverage and that the cord is well saturated. It is harder to get enough solution on the cord by spraying and easier to miss sections.
  • Look at and feel each naval once daily for the first week, or until it is dry, to allow detection of naval infection, wet naval, and naval hernia. Wet naval results from delayed drying of the cord and these are often infected (hot, hard, swollen, smelly or oozy are all signs). The wet naval prevents the body wall from closing and the intestines can slip out, creating a hernia. Contact a vet if any of these signed are detected.
  • 2. Colostrum.

    It is important to remember that the special cells lining the gut that can absorb immunity proteins straight across the gut to the blood stream to provide weeks of passive immunity are shed and lost from the gut within the first 12 to 24 hours of life. This is the reason that colostrum must be given early in life and the first feed should be within two hours of birth.

    If there is a delay in providing colostrum, avoid giving normal milk while waiting for the colostrum. The protein in the normal milk binds to the special gut cells clogging them up and they are then not available for colostrum to bind to later. It is worth banking colostrum by freezing it to enable emergency colostrum to be given.

    Although colostrum can be tested to see how much immunity is in it, it is simpler to use colostrum from older cows in they herd, as they will have the largest range of antibodies against the bugs normally present on the farm and is the best colostrum for calves born on that farm.

    Generally, aim to give 15 per cent of the calf's body weight in the first two feeds. For a 45-kilogram calf, this would be 6.75 litres divided into two feeds. A 30kg calf would need 4.5 litres divided into two feeds.

    Continue to feed colostrum for the first three days as it is higher in fat, protein and nutrients that are excellent for the young calf -- just remember that any colostrum fed after the first 12 to 24 hours is a food source, not an immunity booster. If a calf has missed out on colostrum, a vet can give plasma intravenously to the calf to provide the same immunity. This can be produced by collecting blood from cows on the farm or is commercially available in a frozen form.

    3. Monitor calves.

    These calves are the future of the herd and detecting illness or problems either with the naval or with their general health allows earlier treatment to be instituted. The earlier treatment is started the higher the survival rates.

    There are some great protocols and apps available but simple observation is the starting point on any farm. It is easy to observe calves for appetite and activity level, and then check closer those that are not normal.

    Paying attention to the naval early in life, providing adequate colostrum early enough and observation of your calves appetite and demeanour can help both to prevent illness occurring in the first place and then to allow early treatment if it does occur. These simple measures can help to ensure large healthy numbers of one of the most vital assets for the future.

    Until next time, good milking.

    *Sherri Jaques is a practising veterinarian and reproduction adviser in the West Gippsland region of Victoria. All comments and information discussed in this article are intended to be of a general nature only. Please consult a veterinarian for herd health advice, protocols and/or treatments that are tailored to a herd's particular needs.

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