Surplus dairy calves need colostrum and navel care

Neonatal care is key for surplus calves as they transition from the dairy farm
calendar icon 15 May 2024
clock icon 3 minute read

Editor's note: The following is from a presentation at the 2023 Tri-State Dairy Nutrition Conference by Jessica A. Pempek, PhD, USDA-ARS Livestock Behavior Research Unit and Catie Cramer, DVM, Colorado State University.

Surplus dairy calves consist of all male and non-replacement female calves that are sold from the dairy farm soon after birth. Good neonatal care is key for surplus calves as they transition from the dairy farm to veal or dairy-beef production.

Approximately 9.5 million dairy calves are born every year in the United States. Nearly all male calves and any non-replacement female calves are sold from the source dairy farm soon after birth as “surplus” to the requirements of the dairy operation.

One strategy to optimize surplus dairy calf welfare is to encourage high-quality neonatal care for all calves, regardless of their destination or sex.

Quality colostrum

Colostrum management likely predetermines calf welfare within veal and dairy-beef production. To achieve a successful transfer of passive immunity (TPI), calves must receive an adequate quality and quantity of colostrum quickly after birth with minimal contamination.

Despite the importance of high levels of maternal immunoglobulins to calf health, failed transfer of passive immunity (FTPI) remains a challenge and occurs in an estimated 25% of surplus dairy calves. This is nearly double the national FTPI prevalence for dairy heifer calves.

Calves’ risk of mortality is highest within the first 21 days after arrival at calf-raising facilities and it is well documented that FTPI increases the risk of morbidity and early mortality. Calves with FTPI have 1.5 times greater risk of having diarrhea, 1.8 times greater risk of having respiratory disease, and twice the risk of dying, compared to calves with successful transfer of passive immunity.

Male dairy calves sometimes either do not receive any colostrum or receive a suboptimal quality or quantity of colostrum relative to female heifer calves, significantly increasing their risk of welfare compromise.

Modifications to current colostrum management practices likely require attitudinal and behavioral changes among dairy producers, which can be complex and multifaceted. Good colostrum management practices should continue to be encouraged for both male and female dairy calves to reduce calves’ risk of having FTPI.

Navel care

Navel care is an important factor in the prevention of calf morbidity and early mortality. The umbilicus is exposed after parturition and open to potential contamination by pathogens present in the maternity pen, calf housing areas, transport environments, etc.

Pain associated with navel infection is a welfare concern and interferes with calves’ normal sickness behavior, such as lying down to conserve energy. Navel infection may remain localized, but it can also become systemic and lead to neurological symptoms, severe lameness, and possibly death.

Navel infection is a significant issue in surplus calf production, with studies consistently reporting approximately one-quarter of calves having navel infection on arrival at calf-raising facilities and processing establishments.

Preventative measures can easily be implemented on the source dairy farm to minimize the risk of navel infection, including adequate intake of high-quality colostrum, maternity pen hygiene, decreasing the amount of time newborn calves spend in the maternity pen, and ensuring the cleanliness of other calf housing environments.

Navel antisepsis has long been recommended as the best practice for navel care for newborn calves and is still recommended today by industry experts.

Compared to adult cattle, young calves are particularly vulnerable to compromised welfare and are at a relatively high risk of morbidity and mortality in the first weeks of life. Dairy producers play a critical role in calves’ success in veal and dairy-beef production, and high-quality neonatal care (colostrum administration, hygiene, and navel antisepsis) is necessary to safeguard calf welfare.

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