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BEYOND COLOSTRUM! “Winning the Race to the Milking Line”

It might seem obvious to veteran dairy owners to say that the first feeding of colostrum has an enormous impact on calf health.  However, modern calf managers need to go beyond simple transfer of antibodies and learn ways to manage all aspects of calf immunity, health, and nutrition.  If colostrum is seen as the starting line … then the milking line is the finish line.

Expand Your Viewpoint: “There’s More to Colostrum Than Antibodies”

If workers asked you, curious neighbors or investigating journalists what answer would you give to the question, “Why is the transfer of colostrum from cow to calf important?”  We can quickly give the rote answer, “Colostrum supports immune function and disease resistance by providing antibodies.” What we may not be unintentionally overlooking are the studies out of places like Texas Tech University, where associate professor nutritional immunology, Michael Ballou, feels that we need to be looking beyond antibodies. Farmers have been largely focused on calf health. Research is reporting that there is an expanded role for colostrum that relates to nutrition.

Feed Calves for Success: “Nutrition Impacts GI Maturation”

In presenting research updates at a Land O’Lakes Animal Milk Products Calf Summit in 2016 Ballou elaborated, “GI maturation stars in first trimester in utero, but some components of the GI immune system only develop after birth.” Researchers are reporting that actions taken to improve calf health are much more available to the calf if it is assisted in rapid GI system maturation.  Ballou explains: “Rapid GI system maturation helps break down feed ingredients into nutrients available to the calf and closes the open doors to the harmful micro-organisms that carry the potential for calfhood disease.”

Ballou feels the GI maturation is important to calf health and is affected by colostrum management.  He says, “Many compounds in colostrum and transition milk are involved in post-natal development of the GI system.  Improved calf health through colostrum management should also focus on improving GI maturation.”

Learn from New Research: “Expand Your Protocols for Early Calf Management”

Sometimes it seems that there are too many issues fighting for the attention of the dairy farm owner-manager.  We think it should be as simple as raising, feeding and milking animals.  Collect the milk.  Accept the paycheck.  That line from dairy calf to dairy check is no longer as straightforward or as profitable as it has been in the past.  Growing evidence says that it is costly to ignore all the issues that impact starting dairy calves off on in a way that will allow them to be productive cows in the future. It’s time to manage beyond simple colostrum antibody transfer.

Four areas with potential for positive impact include, but are not limited to:

  1. Raise the level of early nutrition
  2. Prebiotics
  3. Probiotics
  4. Hyperimmunized egg proteins to improve intestinal health

Granted a list of four items is not threatening because of length, however, like any other opportunity, understanding all four and putting them into action could be.  The challenge for dairy owners and calf managers is to get the advice, training, and support that enables them to put improved protocols into place. Let’s look at each one of these individually.

  1. Better fluid Better disease resistance and growth.
    Sometimes what is in front of us every day is the hardest area to single out for change.  Feeding calves seems simple enough.  Unfortunately, the negative results are hard to spot until diseases challenges arrive later in life.  Daryl Nydam, an associate professor at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell University, performed an intensive calf study designed to evaluate the impact of nutrition on disease resistance.  Nydam and his calf team researched groups of calves fed commercially available milk replacers and challenged with Cryptosporidium and other pathogens. Results from the trial showed that “calves fed a Conventional milk replacer diet outlined under the National Research Council (NRC) 2001 recommendations (20 percent fat a 1 pound of dry matter per day) was not enough to meet the calves’ maintenance requirements, provide disease resistance and supply adequate mega calories for growth.
    Dairy managers are being urged to reduce the risk of disease through nutrition management because of the effectiveness of “supplying things directly where they are needed.” explains Ballou. Nydham makes other clarifying points. “With Cryptosporidium being prevalent on every dairy of any size, every pre-weaned calf faces disease challenges.” And furthermore, he adds, “The likelihood is that disease-causing pathogens will never be completely eradicated from a calf’s environment.” With this in mind, Nydham researched how nutrition can impact the health and performance of pre-weaned calves. He is excited about extending that research through the life of the heifer, through her first lactation and beyond. The takeaway for those working on the front lines is that nutritional inputs need to be elevated in two steps: the first two weeks of life and then management of the next period that calves are fed fluid.
  2. Use Prebiotics as a Feed Additive
    Prebiotics are dietary components that are not digested by the calf but are used by bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract to improve their growth. Prebiotics mainly used in calves feeding have carbohydrate as the main nutrient which produces volatile fatty acids, which further may increase nutrient digestibility and subsequently increase feed efficiency. As better data on structure to function information accrues as well as individual metabolic profiles of target bacteria are compiled, it may be easier to select prebiotics for specific purposes. Good management practices to optimize nutrition, immune status, and decrease the risk of disease are vital. The use of prebiotics may be a viable option to increase the proliferation of commensal bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract, modulate feeding behavior, and increase immune function to optimize calf health. It falls to calf managers to responsibly solicit the help of your nutritionist or veterinarian in choosing a science-based research proven product.
  3. Feed probiotics to manage a healthy population of gut microbes.
    One non-antibiotic approach to improving preweaned calf health is to add probiotics – or “good” gut bacteria – to milk or milk replacer to protect the intestinal tract from disease-causing bacteria and keep calves healthy. In an issue of Calf Notes, Dr. Jim Quigley, with Provimi North America, reviewed the results of an evaluation of dozens of studies that looked at the effects of probiotics on calf growth and reached these observations:

    1. Using probiotics during the first 60 days of life can improve growth and feed efficiency in calves fed milk replacer.
    2. Those same benefits were not realized in calves fed whole milk.
    3. The response to probiotics was more apparent earlier in life.
    4. Probiotics had less impact as calves began to consume more dry feed.
    5. A simple, one-strain probiotic was just as effective as products containing multiple bacterial strains.
      (See the full text of Jim Quigley’s “Calf Note 178” at Calf
  4. Add Hyperimmunized egg proteins to improve calf intestinal health
    Another area of study that is producing encouraging results relates to hyperimmunized egg proteins. They report. “At birth, calves can be fed low levels (1 to 3 grams) of these egg products to introduce these antibodies to the calf in combination with the colostrum to begin building a defense system against many common pathogens. The antibodies from the eggs work at the epithelial level of the calf’s intestine in several ways. They identify and bind specific pathogenic bacteria, rendering them inactive. They also “bundle” these bound, inactivated bacteria together (agglutination) for secretion via feces. They recognize the processes of specific viruses so these viruses are neutralized and cannot enter the cells. A critical factor in the effectiveness in the egg antibodies is the affinity the antibody has for the specific antigen.”

Give Your Calves the Best Start!  Give Your Dairy Herd a Better Future!

There are approximately 670 to 770 days between birth of a dairy calf and the first day in the milking line. Each dairy calf must make progress from the starting line of its birth to the milking line.  How that progress is managed will determine the success of the dairy’s bottom line. An added bonus is that maternal nutrition affects the next generation. Races can be won or lost at the starting line.  Proper investments of time and effort pay off in the long run. Attention to detail in raising healthy calves will ensure quality replacement heifers for the next generation.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

First colostrum feeding protocols have enjoyed the attention they deserve but it is now time to dig deeper and recognize the opportunities that are available for taking the next step in early calf health and immunity management. Until calves grow and enter the milking line with the ability to perform the full expression of their genetic potential, there is still more to be done.




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