EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of two parts on the management of young calves for the small-scale hobbyist.
A newborn calf is a vulnerable animal and susceptible to disease. Great care is required in nurturing it through the first critical six to eight weeks of life.
The calf represents an investment you cannot afford to lose. Your initial care of the newborn calf influences its performance in the following weeks and even years. Here are some tips to help you be successful.
To begin with, the mother cow must receive proper nutrition before calving. Deficiencies in the diet may reduce the nutritive value of the first milk available to the calf (colostrum). Colostrum provides needed immunity and nutrition for the newborn calf. Calves not receiving adequate colostrum will be at risk for disease until their own immunity is stronger at 2 to 3 months of age. When purchasing calves from other farms, you should ask about the quality and amount of colostrum the previous owner provided for the calf.
Next, provide a clean, dry place for calving for proper sanitation. Dairymen who regularly put their cows in unclean pens have higher losses than those who use no pens at all. Unsanitary maternity pens increase buildup of disease-causing bacteria that come from manure, decayed placentas and dirty bedding. After each calving, the maternity stall should be cleaned and disinfected immediately, then kept free of any bedding or animals. In the summer, calving outdoors in fresh grass is ideal.
Third, get the cow into the maternity pen at least a day ahead of calving. This is not easy because the cow can’t tell you she is going into labor, so you need to watch for signs of approaching labor.
After the calf’s birth, clean the excess mucus from its nose and mouth with clean hands or a clean towel.
Then dip the calf’s complete navel into a cup containing tincture of iodine solution (7 percent iodine in alcohol.)
Clean the cow’s udder and then milk as much colostrum as possible. Put it into a bottle and feed the calf at least 4 quarts (approximately 10 percent of the calf’s body weight) within the first six hours, preferably within the first hour. Colostrum provides natural antibodies for the calf before bacteria enter from the environment. Remember, the calf has just left the sterile environment of the cow’s uterus and is very susceptible to disease. Feed colostrum to the calf for two to three days.
Put the calf in a warm, dry and clean stall at the time it is removed from the cow.
After the colostrum feeding, switch to milk or a milk replacer. There are some great milk replacers on the market that have proven results. Do not buy “off-brand” milk replacers just because they are cheaper. Some milk replacers contain a small amount of antibiotics in them. We recommend using nonmedicated milk replacers unless there is a chronic, diagnosed bacterial diarrhea that is responsive to a medicated milk replacer and after we have improved husbandry and sanitation.
Talk with your veterinarian if there is a chronic diarrhea issue. It may be caused by a viral disease that will not respond to antibiotics.
Allen Young, USU Extension dairy specialist, contributed to this column.