Youngstock are key to the future of all dairy herds, and recent Scottish research indicates that much can be done simply and inexpensively to improve colostrum management and the overall health of stock on farms.

Calves are born with a poorly developed immune system and no antibodies of their own to fight off diseases, such as scour and pneumonia. They need to receive antibodies from colostrum within the first six hours from birth; this is known as passive transfer of antibody.

The ‘5Qs’ of colostrum management are now well known:

1. Quickly (within the first six hours of life)

2. Quantity (10-15% of the calf’s bodyweight)

3. Quality (at least 50g/L of antibodies)

4. Quantify (measure the quality of the colostrum and monitor antibodies in calf blood)

5. sQueaky clean (colostrum should not have lots of bacteria in it)

Glasgow Veterinary School recently conducted research on 38 Scottish dairy farms in Stirlingshire, Lanarkshire and Dumfries and Galloway, and found that one in five newborn calves had evidence of low antibody concentration in their blood.

This study – funded by the Hannah Dairy Research Foundation and the James Herriot Scholarship Fund supported by staff at Glasgow University Veterinary School Laboratories and SRUC Veterinary Services; as well as the vets and farmers of Clyde Veterinary Group and Stewartry Vets – was the first of its kind to investigate passive transfer in dairy calves in Scotland. When young calves (in the first week of life) have low blood antibody concentrations due to lack of absorbed colostrum antibody, they are said to have Failure of Passive Transfer (FPT).

Calves that suffer from FPT are more likely to get sick, more likely to be treated with antibiotics, more likely to die and more likely to have reduced productivity in the future (poor growth, fertility and lower milk yields).

The research also looked into reasons why calves were suffering from FPT by taking samples of colostrum directly from feeding tubes or teat buckets at the time of feeding to newborn calves. Farmers were asked to complete a questionnaire about how they managed colostrum on their farm. All farmers said they cleaned harvesting and feeding equipment regularly; however, nearly a third of samples tested had too much bacterial contamination.

Bacteria in dirty colostrum bind to and block the uptake of antibodies in the calf’s gut, as well as being a source of disease like Mycoplasma and Johne’s disease. The study found that if colostrum sat in a bucket for more than six hours after harvesting, it was 11 times more likely to have unacceptably high levels of bacterial contamination, compared with colostrum that was frozen, refrigerated or fed promptly after harvesting.

Nearly half (44 %) of colostrum samples tested did not have enough antibodies to ensure calves would get adequate immunity and protection from disease.

Colostrum harvested from cows more than six hours after calving had much lower antibody concentrations compared with colostrum harvested at less than six hours. Worryingly, in total, 61% of samples either did not have enough antibodies and/or were too dirty. Colostrum quality is a major risk factor for FPT in Scottish dairy calves and should be a focus for producers.

What can you do on your farm?

Quantify the problem properly: sample the calves

Engage with your vet to provide routine monitoring to build up trends in FPT and calf health over time. Testing at least 12 calves for FPT is cheap, quick and easy – if you are organised it will add on no more than 10-20 minutes onto a routine visit and results can be available that day or calf side. Calves aged between one and seven days are suitable for blood sampling.

All too often, only one or two calves on your farm are tested sporadically, when calf health is an issue, which can give misleading information about colostrum management and FPT.

Taking samples from 12+ calves is generally considered representative of the on-farm picture. On some farms this will take a few weeks to collect, depending on herd size and calving pattern. Investing a small amount in a monitoring programme can save a lot more in vet medicine costs and other production losses associated with calf diseases long term.

Quantify the problem properly: sample the colostrum

Colostrum quality is also something you can measure yourself with a Brix refractometer (available online for only around £20). Good quality colostrum should measure at least 22% Brix. Colostrum hygiene can be investigated by checking bacterial counts at the laboratory. After this information is gathered, specific control points can be developed for your farm.

Improve colostrum quality

In order to improve antibody concentrations in colostrum:

• only feed first milking colostrum to newborn calves

• minimise the time between calving and harvesting colostrum

• minimise the time colostrum spends sitting in a bucket before storing or feeding.

Individual cow factors such as: age and breed of cow, season, dry cow management and vaccination status may also affect individual cow colostrum antibody concentrations but are longer term strategies and sometimes out with our control.

Make sure colostrum is clean

Critical control points to ensure colostrum cleanliness are focussed around harvesting, storing and feeding:

• scrupulous udder preparation

• proper cleaning of equipment, scrubbing with hot water and detergent to remove colostrum/milk scum

• covering collection buckets with lids

• freezing or refrigerating promptly at the correct temperature (-20°C for freezing and 4°C for refrigeration)

• Installing a thermometer on your fridge or freezer to monitor temperature

All these strategies are inexpensive, simple actions to keep bacteria out of colostrum.