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Why is colostrum management so important in calf rearing?

  • Why is colostrum management so important in calf rearing?
One of the primary aims of every dairy farmer is to raise healthy, robust calves. Doing so sets a firm foundation for a lifetime of good health and optimal milk production.

However, as simple as this aim sounds, calf rearing is a complex subject and the aspect of animal management that causes more consternation for dairy farmers than any other. So much information is available on the subject, with many different approaches and systems vying for attention to confuse matters further.

One aspect of calf rearing that all experts agree on is the importance of colostrum in the first hours after birth.

Lyndal Hackett, Territory Manager – Animal Nutrition at Rivalea Australia believes optimal colostrum management is vital for calf rearing success. Much emphasis is now being placed on practices and techniques that improve colostrum management and avoid the problems that can follow on from mismanaging this important time.

Lyndal explained, “Correct colostrum management is the perfect combination of quality, quickness and quantity. All three must be in the right balance. In my experience, I’ve found nearly all dairy farmers have the right intentions, but some don’t necessarily get the balance right.”

It’s a subject that was covered in much detail at the recent Dairy Australia endorsed ‘Healthy Calves’ workshops held in dairy regions around Victoria and New South Wales. Lyndal and several of her dairy customers attended these workshops in northern Victoria at Waaia and Cohuna.

During these one day workshops, dairy experts shared the latest research, technologies and practices to assist dairy farmers to get that colostrum balance right and optimise the health of their calves at this vital first stage of life.

Lyndal said that the detailed information presented about colostrum management during these workshops was extremely valuable and directly supports Rivalea’s Veanavite® Calf Rearing System.

The Veanavite® Calf Rearing System has been developed and refined to include all aspects of successful calf rearing – from nutrition to housing to health and management. Correct colostrum management is a fundamental part of the system, and as more dairy farmers focus in on it in their practices, more will find that “quality, quickness and quantity” are an easier balance to get right.

Keith Nicoll milks between 700 and 800 cows on his farm just north of Numurkah in Victoria. For many years Keith has been using the Veanavite® products as part of his calf rearing system, however in the last year he has also employed calf rearer Louise Jakobsen. Louise concentrates her entire time on Keith’s calf rearing operation, developing and finetuning animal management practices that have been achieving excellent results.

Louise attended the Dairy Australia ‘Healthy Calves’ workshop in Waaia with Lyndal, and commented she enjoyed it and took a lot of valuable information away. She said, “I found it really good, with in-depth information about what’s most important. Colostrum management was covered in great detail, and I have integrated some of what I learnt into our system, especially the use of a Brix refractometer.”

Louise explained that she now uses a Brix refractometer to measure the quality of colostrum before choosing which batch is given to the calves.

Lyndal pointed out the importance of using a Brix refractometer to very quickly assess the quality of colostrum. Lyndal said, “Viticulturists have been using them for years to measure the sugar content of their grapes, but dairy farmers can now measure and assess their colostrum, and with this information change or refine their colostrum management practices. It’s an innovation that will help lead to healthier calves, no doubt about it. Plus it’s an easy to access low cost item.”

Louise said their previous system was to give two litres of colostrum at birth, another two litres within twelve hours of birth and another two litres within 24 hours of birth. A simple visual comparison was made to decide which batch was fed to the calves.

Louise explained, “I gave whichever batch looked the most thick and yellow. Now I use the Brix refractometer to assess quality, ensuring that the IgG (antibodies) are 50mg/mL or more, which is 22 on the the Brix refractometer. It’s awesome, and has made all the difference. The refractometer has showed us that a visual judgement of colostrum can be very incorrect. The other day we had two batches of colostrum both looking the same to us, so before we got the refractometer we would have fed either one. But when we tested them, one tested at 16 and the other at 25. Had we feed the colostrum that tested at 16, there is no way the calf would have received

enough antibodies and would probably have gotten sick. A calf’s absorption rate is never 100%, but more like 50% or less, so feeding the wrong colostrum could be fatal for a calf.”

She further added, “If we only have colostrum available that measures under 22 on the Brix refractometer, I will use the online colostrum calculator to calculate the volume of colostrum I need to give to the calf to make sure it gets enough antibodies, which is a minimum of 100mg of IgG per feed. This has really helped me manage staff too, as everyone knows that they are under no circumstances allowed to feed a calf colostrum before they have tested it with the refractometer and checked on the colostrum calculator how much to give the calf.”

Louise also shared her observations about how Veanavite’s feed products help get her calves off to a healthiest start possible. She said, “They love No 1 Pellets, and I can see that they thrive on them. Older calves are changed to the No 2 Pellets when they are three months old. Veanavite is a great product that has the right nutritional balance that contains everything I know they need.”

Louise feels very positive about the combination of Veanavite feeds during calf rearing and her enhanced colostrum management techniques and practices. She said, “We have excellent calves this year. Last spring’s calves have stayed on the No.2 pellets since weaning, and at weighing it really showed. They averaged a daily weight gain of 1.5kg, and the biggest ones 2.5kg.”

Lastly Louise said, “What I see as the most important thing when it comes to calf rearing is ‘attention to detail’. Correct colostrum management, fresh clean drinking water, the right rearing environment, and last but not least, the right nutrition. Other than that, you just need to spend plenty of time with the calves and just observe, observe and observe. The calves themselves are your best teacher.”