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Getting that Calf off to a Good Start

The vast majority of Highland calves will be delivered by their dams with no problems whatsoever. Likewise, it is probable that the majority will also get to their feet, nurse and receive adequate amounts of colostrum without assistance other than from their mother.


There are Highland calves, unfortunately, that will do no such thing.  Any calf that has been traumatized by dystocia, even when the cow ended up delivering without human help, should be assisted to ensure adequate colostrum intake.


 Calves that have undergone the rigors of a hard, long delivery are weak and stressed, often far more than they appear.  Cold and wet conditions are further stressors, despite this breeds reputation for hardiness.  Wet, cold highland calves are sitting ducks for difficulty in nursing and failure to consume adequate levels of colostrum.  Calves basically have limited time to consume that vital first milk so loaded with antibodies they need to fight off all the diseases running rampant on the farm of birth.  Mature animals are immune to all these diseases through natural exposure and vaccinations and as a result most people don’t even know these diseases exist on their property .  Newborn calves are born with no acquired immunity to these diseases, and require that colostrum to provide their only protection against these organisms until the calves are capable of producing their own antibodies.


 Calves need dry footing when they are first born. Muddy, slippery conditions with a calf unable to get to its feet, continuing to coat itself with mud, will exhaust even the most experienced mothers that managed to deliver quickly and easily.  Combine a chilled, exhausted, muddy calf with an immature, exhausted heifer who has never witnessed calving and doesn’t have the slightest idea what to do, and you have disaster in the making.


 If dystocia was the initiating problem, and the cow required assistance, the first priority is to get the calf breathing if it is not.  Wipe the mucous from around the nose, and suspend the calf from its hind legs to allow drainage of fluid from its airways.  There usually is no need to panic if excessive fluid seems to come out; most of it is probably coming from the calf’s stomach. Throw cold water on the calf’s head to stimulate respiration if it is not breathing. Another method to stimulate respiration is to vigorously tickle the inside of the nose with straw, or apply pressure to the chest wall just above where the heartbeat is felt the strongest, which may stimulate the phrenic nerve.


 Next, dip and hold the umbilical cord in a cup of 7% (strong) iodine.


 The calf should be dried, either by the cow, or with human help.


 The cow should be checked for the presence of colostrum, blind quarters and mastitis.  Some first milk will appear to be bloody from bruising of the udder as the cow walks with a distended bag the last few days before calving.  Bloody milk is not a problem to feed to the calf, however watery milk with clumps of debris in it, or curdled, clotted yellow milk that resembles thick pus should not be fed.


Help the calf to nurse either on the cow, or feed it by bottle or esophageal feeder.  (Every cattle breeder should have and know how to use an esophageal feeder.  Ask a knowledgeable stockman or veterinarian to demonstrate if you don’t know how to use one.)


 Allow the calf and cow to bond by penning with the dam in a warm and sheltered environment.


 Feeding Colostrum

Colostrum in the beef cow tends to be more concentrated than in the dairy cow.  A general rule of thumb is that the calf should consume 10% of its body weight in colostrum in the first twelve hours after birth. Due to the increased concentration of the beef cow’s colostrum a 75 pound calf should ingest 2-3 quarts of colostrum within 4-12 hours of birth.  The sooner colostrum is given, the more antibodies that will be absorbed through the gut of the calf into the bloodstream. After a number of hours, the ability of the gut to permit the passage of relatively large immunoglobulins intact shuts down, and colostrum antibodies are no longer absorbed. Thus, the importance of providing the newborn calf with early and high quality colostrum.


 The best colostrum usually will be from the mother herself, but there will be times when she does not have adequate amounts, or is not available to give colostrum.  Heifers do not have as high a quality of colostrum as mature cows, nor do they tend to give as much.  Sick animals or those in poor health due to nutritional deficiencies may have little or poor quality colostrum.


 The best substitute for the mother’s first milk is colostrum from another cow, preferably from the same herd.  This is important for two reasons: first, the disease exposure for dam and donor will presumably be the same (the calf will be protected from diseases organisms present of the farm of origin) and you avoid the introduction of potentially devastating disease by bringing in off-farm colostrum.  (Johnes Disease is an excellent example of a disease that could be introduced to the farm through colostrum)


 It is wise to bank colostrum from some of your herd members, ideally those that give large volumes of milk, and are docile enough to allow milking.  Colostrum should be taken from the very first milking of that cow immediately after she calves, ensuring that there is adequate colostrum for her own calf as well.  This colostrum can be frozen indefinitely, as long as it is not stored in a freezer with an automatic defrost cycle.  Colostrum stored in such a freezer will lose substantial percentages of the protective antibodies over a 12 month period of time.  Colostrum can be placed in clean plastic soda or water bottles that range in size from 12 -32 ounces.  Such containers are easy to thaw in a hot water bath, as their caps can be tightened adequately to allow complete submersion.


 Thawing frozen colostrum requires some care.  The best method, if time allows, is to thaw in a hot water bath (not boiling) until it has reached 104 degrees.  The water can be changed frequently, and multiple smaller containers of 12 and 16 ounces will thaw more quickly than quart or two quart sizes.  Thawing in the microwave is also possible, but should never be done with the power higher than 60 %, and careful, very frequent agitation must be performed to ensure that the colostrum does not cook.  Cooked colostrum destroys the immunoglobulins so that the colostrum has no value.  Even on 10% power, microwave thawing can result in spots of cooked colostrum.  Although more time consuming, hot water bathes are a safer way to maintain colostrum integrity.


 Although there is no method short of laboratory analysis that will guarantee high quality colostrum, make sure you colostrum donor is a mature cow in good health and condition who gives large volumes of milk (look at her history of weaning weights on her calves: the high weaning weights are usually the result of heavy milk production, unless you are creep feeding, then you can’t really tell.)


 Colostrum substitutes


 There are a number of colostrum supplements on the market today.  These are supplements; designed to be given to calves that have received some natural colostrum, but not adequate amounts.   You should probably figure that most calves should receive roughly 150 grams of immunoglobulins.  Many of these powdered products may contain 24 - 36 grams of immunoglobulins per 2 quart package.  They must be mixed with adequate water, and it becomes exceedingly difficult to get the required amount of immunoglobulins because of the huge volume of liquid that must be consumed.  Feeding such a large volume of colostrum substitute, even spread over 12 hours, is not recommended. (The calf’s stomach is not large enough to digest this amount of food.)  Certainly, several 2 quart feedings can be made in this time, but not enough to supply the calf’s total requirement for ideal immunoglobulin levels.


 There are colostrum boluses on the market, however these may only contain .3 grams of immunoglobulins.  These are essentially worthless as a colostrum substitute.


 There are also pastes designed as “first milk”.  These 30 ml tubes contain only 5 grams of immunoglobulins. 

 It is necessary to consider the requirements of the calf before relying on any colostrum substitute.


At a bare minimum, 80 grams of immunoglobulin should be given in the first 12 hours.   Double that amount for ideal levels of immunoglobulin in newborn calves.  There are now excellent colostrum substitutes on the market now that deliver over 100 grams of immunoglobulin per dose.  Calf Choice Total and Headstart are just 2 of those products, available from a number of livestock supply sites.  Read the packages carefully.  These newer products truly are excellent but the older and less effective supplements are still on the market and getting the right product can be confusing.


 Identifying the calf that may require assistance to nurse.

 1. Any calf when the cow required assistance to deliver. (Abnormal position, coming backwards, calf large for size of cow, sick cow)

 2.  Any calf when the cow suffered a prolonged labor and delivery. 

 3.  Any calf that appears to be struggling and unable to stand. (Contracted tendons, muddy conditions)

 4.  Any calf whose dam has large banana-like teats.  These teats are very difficult for the newborn calf to successfully grab and learn to nurse.  Teat conformation may be hereditary, or can be a result of injury;  and serious consideration should be given to culling such cows with teats in this category, particularly young cows.  Young cows, with large, ballooning teats require a lifetime commitment to ensure the calves’ survival.  These cows should not be passed off to inexperienced, new Highland owners without adequate warning.

 5.  Any calf born to a cow with a large, pendulous udder.  If the udder hangs too low for the calf to find the teats, this is a problem.  Many cows udders do break down with age, and again, this condition may be hereditary.  You need to consider the history of the cow;  found in a 12 or 13 year old cow who has weaned a lifetime of good calves on your farm warrants a different approach than a 4 year old cow with her lifetime and a good part of yours in front of her.  Lopsided udders, where the front teats are carried considerably higher than the rear, may be unattractive, but if the calf can function and nurse without assistance this is probably not so severe a flaw.

 6.  Any calf born to a cow with ballooning teats and a low pendulous udder.  This is a horrible combination.  Serious consideration should be given to culling the cow once she has raised her calf. These calves will not be able to nurse, and with the likelihood of a hereditary basis, it is wise to consider culling the calf from your breeding herd.

 7.  Any calf you discover sucking off a clump of matted hair or a mud ball (or sucking on any other abnormal location) for anything more than a few brief seconds.  The instinct to suck is very strong in most calves, but occasionally they will latch onto the handiest protrusion from the cow, and it might not be a teat.  They may well never make the connection that they are not getting any food because they never have had food in their stomach to recognize the feeling, and nursing brings them the only  satisfaction they have ever felt.  These calves may fool you into thinking that they are truly nursing with their head in the right area, but they do not have the teat in their mouth.  A nursing calf will have milk on his nose, around his mouth and many times on his head.  He will develop a full appearance after nursing, and feel full and firm right behind the ribcage. He will snake along his mothers underside if he loses the teat, and will search frantically to pick it up again if he is still hungry.  The calf who has nursed may appear more hungry when he feels it is time to eat, than a calf that has never tasted milk. This may explain many cases of calves that appear to be perfectly normal and even energetic for several days after birth, and then are found dead.

 8.  Any calf that you are just not sure about.


 Highland cows do tend to be good mothers, cleaning their calves and assisting them in finding the udder and teats.  However, cattle learn by imitation; calves imitate their mothers when they first learn to eat grass and hay.  Heifers should be allowed to watch newly calving experienced cows and see how they respond to that new life slithering around their bodies. This may not guarantee good mothering, but it gets one more way to get the new mother off to a good start and by extension, help get the calf off to a good start also.


 While assisting a calf to nurse may fly in the face of everything anyone has every preached about Highland cattle; there are times when it becomes a necessity.  It makes no economic sense to support the pregnant cow for 9 months only to ignore the product you’ve been waiting for.  Some breeders are of the opinion that to assist the cow and calf contributes to a weakening of the gene pool.  There is little doubt that breeding selection can eventually contribute to poor mothering or calves that are lackadaisical survivors who don’t try very hard. However, this does not happen overnight.  There are so many variables that affect dam and offspring that are likely contributing causes of problems. Blaming the cow or calf for its predicament may not be justified.  If there is an obvious problem with the cow, such as udder conformation, that animal should be selected for culling.  Repeating history, when the same apparently normal cow producing dead or weak calves, killing the calf , or failing to raise a reasonably healthy animal due to lack of milk production, are all indications to carefully consider whether that cow, and possibly the offspring should remain as a breeding animal.  However, once that calf has hit the ground, it only makes good economic sense to use every means at your disposal to ensure that calf survives. After that calf has made it to weaning, then a decision can be reached on removing that individual and cow from the gene pool. Anything less is a waste of time and money.

LEA Kittery, at 18 years of age, with her bull calf.

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