‘Go time’ for newborns

Calf in hutch

A baby calf nursing for the first time . . . if everything’s going right, it might look a little peaceful. But no matter how serene it may seem on the outside, what’s happening inside is a fast and furious defense system.

The biological signal that calf, and its immune system, gets could be summed up as, “It’s go time!”

Time limit

Everybody knows the ideal situation is an easy birth and calf nursing shortly thereafter, but do you know the specifics? You may know that a calf’s gut is not fully closed until after it gets something in its stomach, but it’s now pretty clear how critical it is that “something” be colostrum.

There’s usually about 24 hours until the animal’s chance of absorbing antibodies into the bloodstream is greatly decreased, but if it consumes anything besides colostrum first, that window is much narrower.

“It’s not really selective. There’s nothing in that calf’s gut that picks out the antibodies and leaves everything else. Essentially the gut grabs bunches of stuff in the gut and engulfs it and dumps it out into the bloodstream,” said Brian Vander Ley, University of Missouri (MU) veterinarian.

That is to say, no matter what a calf gets in its stomach (think trying to nurse on a not-exactly-sterilized fence) first, it has a direct line to its bloodstream.

Good mothers

The reality of most calving environments emphasizes the importance of selecting for good mamas (who readily accept their babies) and cows well-suited for the environment. Those that are in good condition going into calving will have a much better chance of producing enough — both in quality and quantity — of that liquid gold.

Milk replacer

In addition to “feed your cows,” Vander Ley has one more recommendation: when a calf doesn’t nurse and milking its cow isn’t practical, use a true colostrum replacer versus a colostrum substitute or electrolytes.

A replacer comes from hyper-vaccinated cows and is pretty similar to actual colostrum, where a substitute has substantially fewer immunoglobulins and other proteins found in colostrum.

I’ve heard many people say that cattle that grade well have “never had a bad day.”

I sincerely believe that goes all the way back to the time spent in utero.


Recently, I was fascinated to learn that scientists believe colostrum could do a lot more than just provide an energy-dense meal and protective antibodies to newborn animals.

Work out of Auburn University talks about the “lactocrine hypothesis” in swine. “We have always known that growth factors in colostrum are really important for gut development,” said Allison Meyer, MU animal scientist, “but this shows there are parts of colostrum that are helping with development of other organs after the animal is born.”

It’s not proven, but she suspects the same happens in beef cattle.

Disease resistance

The link between colostrum and immune system function, however, is well-documented and we know that lifetime disease resistance has proven benefits in the feedyard and on the rail.

“I know if animals have respiratory disease they’re less likely to grade well,” Vander Ley said.

“And I also know if they have good passive transfer at birth, they’re less likely to get respiratory disease in their life.

If I put that together, my assumption is if they get good colostral transfer as a calf, they at least stand a much better chance of reaching their genetic potential.”

Calving season

That sounds like a convincing case to pay attention to it here and now, but isn’t it also exciting to know that there could be dozens of other benefits we don’t even know about yet?

As many of you gear up for calving season, keep in mind that what you’re doing now could impact that calf’s early, ever-important dose of nutrition. Colostrogenesis starts 16 weeks pre-calving. In other words, “It’s go time.”

Next time in Black Ink® Steve Suther will look at generalizations and exceptions.


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