Do You Have a Tender Loving Care Newborn Group?

By Jerry Bertoldo, DVM

Winter shows us some of the opportunities in the world of baby dairy calf care. It affects all calves, but of particular concern is the dystocia calf, ones that get shorted on colostrum (volume or quality) or those born “early” outside of a designated calving area. There has not been a widespread effort to treat “stressed” newborns differently than their “according to plan” friends.

Many farms will note calving related problems on paper or in Dairy Comp for the benefit of calf care folks. How does this information translate to action items for these less than fortunate youngsters? Often times it is reminder to respond to the first signs of problems aggressively with antibiotics and supportive treatments. Is this the wisest proactive approach?

Think about the following points for newborn calves:

  • Calves are born without antibodies against the common disease causing viruses and bacteria that they will see within minutes of birth.
  • For calves with a calving difficulty score of 3 out of 5 or worse – 25% will die within 48 hrs., 3.8 X as many become ill and 4.5 X as many will die as compared to normal births. 60% of heifer deaths by 6 months are from births with dystocia scores of 3 or greater.
  • 1 out of 7 calves born with a dystocia score of 3 or greater will have a broken rib causing pain, reduced activity, desire to eat and resistance to disease.
  • Calves have little body fat as compared to other animals. Their internal energy reserves will last less than a day in warmer weather (over 60°F).
  • Cold weather will deplete fat reserves in several hours without prompt consumption of nutrient rich colostrum.
  • When a calf’s core body temperature falls below 101°F for more than 1 hour, it will not absorb colostrum antibodies (IgG’s) very well. Additionally, their immune system development is hampered.
  • The first thing in a calf’s mouth after being born gets to enter the blood stream rather easily in the first 12 hours of life whether a bacteria, nutrient or IgG.
  • Calves less than 3 weeks of age need extra energy to stay warm when temperatures fall below 60°F. This doubles below 40°F. Wind, damp and manure caked hair coats make the need even greater.
  • Meeting energy and protein needs to stay warm, grow and fuel the immune system makes 2X feeding of milk or milk replacer in the proper amount difficult on the digestive tract.
  • 3X feeding with even spacing between meals is a management challenge, but works wonders as compared to 2X and even an additional 3rd feeding in the afternoon.

To get the jump on illness, calves need reduced stress, low bacteria exposure (manure meals!), dry and warm bedding, individualized attention, and high feeding rates in the winter. Yes, it is expensive, but this is the future of the herd! Calves that had a difficult birth, were born in manure, received poor or dirty colostrum or had early navel contamination before dipping are in a special needs group. They require more attention than usual and should be housed in hutches or individual pens where they can be closely monitored, if they are to stay alive and become productive adults.

Consider these practices for high risk calves:

  • Makes sure calf care people know who these calves are by identifying these with colored tape, crayon marks, collars or zip ties on ear tags.
  • Check navels on Day 2 looking for wet and especially swollen stumps. Treat with antibiotics early and check periodically.
  • Use vitamin/mineral supplementation (preferably injectable) such as Vitamin B complex, Vitamin A&D, Vitamin E, selenium and iron dextran to boost the immune systems and immune systems and metabolic functions.
  • Use preventative antibiotics selected based on baby calf disease history, diagnostics and the individual calf status.
  • Use intranasal and oral vaccines or oral antibody products on Day 1 if indicated.
  • Feed poorer quality colostrum or “fresh milk” for a few days after Day 1 for the extra nutrition and beneficial health benefits. Make sure the bacteria count is low in any of these!
  • Put calf jackets on these calves earlier than you would for ones with no issues.
  • Ensure these calves are housed in newly cleaned plastic hutches or pens and have a fresh bedding pack.

Calves that come into this world with a hard pull – or push – have a decided handicap in any weather. The dystocia calves of winter have an even tougher path to survival, health and growth. Give them a hand and a fair shot at seeing the dog days of summer!

**Jerry Bertoldo, DVM is veterinarian in Western New York state and is currently the Dairy Management Specialist with the NWNY Dairy Team for Cornell Cooperative Extension team.

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