Nursing Difficulties in Calves
A perfect day of calving is flooded with sunshine. A perfect day of calving is having a super clean and dry place ready for a calm momma cow to lay down and push her calf out like it is her job, because it is her job! A perfect day of calving is watching a cow mother-up without question by claiming and aggressively cleaning her calf. A perfect day of calving is enjoying a vigorous calf that jumps up and nurses with plenty of great quality colostrum, followed with playfully bucking, kicking and farting during the first 48 hours of life. Well, maybe not the farting.
Watching calves closely for successful colostrum ingestion is paramount; the colostrum contains the all-important antibodies that will protect them from illness during the days, weeks and even months ahead of them. Without ample colostrum, calves can fall to failure of passive transfer (FPT). These calves will be left highly susceptible to common diseases that can cost you lost production time and worse, increased death loss, especially in the first three weeks of life. There are some simple things to watch for during the first 4 hours of calving to prevent failure of passive transfer that revolve specifically around the nursing calf. Be mindful of the following simple check list to ensure adequate milk is passed from the dam to calf.
Cows and calves that you question on any of the above criteria should be examined more closely. As time progresses from hours to days, failure of any of the previous criteria becomes gravely serious. Start with the cow: feel the udder for softness, pliability and equal content of milk in each quarter. Washing the udder with warm water will help the cow to relax and let her milk down and prevent infection. Strip each quarter to make sure all four teats are open and delivering milk easily. The milk should be fluid-like without blood or garget chunks. Treat for mastitis as needed. Free up any unopened or tight sphincters. Feel for anything that is plugging the teat, like a polyp or tumor. Completely milk out any teats that the calf has not adequately nursed. This milk can then be given to the calf if necessary. If the milk is in extreme excess, the excess can be frozen; an unopened teat is still considered to be colostrum.
A well-developed udder is a good sign of adequate milk production, but not a guarantee. The most common cause of inadequate milk production is calving early. Having good breeding records can give you an early tip if a cow or heifer has calved before her due date which may result in low volume or poor-quality colostrum. Use a colostrometer to help ensure adequate quality; the best milk will be in the green zone. If the quality is poor, steps can be taken early to mediate the shortfall. Feeding a larger volume, providing a plasma transfusion or giving banked colostrum from a different cow can remedy the deficit. Supplemental or replacement products can be used once all fresh and frozen colostrum resources are depleted.
Watch the calf for confidence as it approaches the udder. Watch the cow for stomping or leg lifting as signs that she may be pushing the calf away and not allowing it to nurse. If the calf is hovering under the udder and not latching on, it may require intervention. The vigorous calf will typically select the teats that provide the best flow of milk and avoid troublesome ones. It is common to nurse one teat completely out and move to the next. If the calf is moving quickly from teat to teat, or excessively head butting to stimulate milk flow, the milk is likely inadequately flowing or not providing an adequate volume.
Take a closer look at calves that are always laying down. Check the calf’s belly visually or by palpating the abdomen to feel for a heavy wave of milk. A full belly is a good sign that calf has been nursing. Check to make sure the calf has a soft, supple and pain-free umbilicus. Note the calf’s fecal material, looking for loose stool, discoloration or blood. A dull calf may need its temperature taken and an evaluation of the blood sugar level.
Schedule periodictotal protein assessments to evaluate your colostrum management. Measuring serum total protein in the 3 to 7 day old calf can help you to assess their passive transfer status. It puts a number on how well the cow made and delivered her colostrum, coupled with how well the calf ingested and absorbed the antibodies that are needed to support the naive immune system.
Often, overcoming the hurdles of getting a cow pregnant and getting a live calf on the ground can be celebrated too soon. Producers can be overwhelmed with late night calving difficulties and other distractions. Once the calf hits the ground, we can be guilty of moving on to the next fire and the close observation of the new pair can fall short. Keeping a close eye on the nursing calf can give newborns the best chance at a vigorous start and prevent future problems. Call your veterinarian early if further problems arise. Decrease your production costs, production delays and keep death losses to a minimum by keeping your calf rearing skills sharp.
About the Author
Dr. Colleen Lewis is a 1996 graduate of Kansas State University, College of Veterinary Medicine. Her career has taken her to many places as a practice owner, consultant, embryologist, and mentor. She enjoys mixed animal practice, teaching, traveling, farming and high school sports with her husband, Andrew and their three boys.
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