Feeding Newborn Calves

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It’s that time of year again! Calves will soon be dropping and heading into their warm, dry sheds eagerly awaiting their first feed. When it comes to calves, we recommend quality colostrum is given quickly and in a high enough quantity that they reap the full benefits of those maternal antibodies.

1. Quickly – It is paramount that a calf receives its first feed within 6- 12 hours.

Calves build their immune system by absorbing antibodies from the cow’s first colostrum. After this time, they are unable to absorb the protective antibodies required for a healthy immune system.

2. Quality

The colostrum from the first milking is the best; and is called “gold colostrum”, after the first milking, the number of protective antibodies decrease.

You can measure how good a cow’s colostrum is, and how many protective antibodies they have by using a Brix Refractometer. A Brix reading of over 22 indicates a cow has good quality colostrum, with a high level of protective antibodies. High quality colostrum (especially in the first 6-12 hours) gives calves the best chance of

surviving and thriving. This even carries through into their first lactation and mating!

Cows in the herd can have a wide range in colostrum quality and it is impossible to tell good quality with the naked eye. Because of this we advise testing all the “gold” colostrum you are keeping.

3. Quantity – a calf needs a minimum of 10% of its body weight in the first 12 hours of life, ie. a 40 kg calf will need at least 4L of good quality colostrum.  Generally, we recommend to tube feed this volume of gold colostrum to all calves at the first feed. If those calves don’t suckle that afternoon, don’t stress they’ve had their daily intake in that first tube feed however you will likely find there are a few that are keen!

Calves who don’t have adequate quality colostrum intake are on the back foot from the start, they have:

  • Twice this risk of disease and/or death.
  • Decreased growth rates- about a 7 kg difference at 6 months.
  • Decreased milk production in first lactation.

These little suckers are the future of your milking herd, it’s important they get off to the best start.

Feeding newborns to requirements (milk or milk replacer) from birth to weaning is very important and often overlooked. Talk to your vet to make sure that you have a good plan for this.

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