Producing good quality colostrum in the beef suckler herd was among topics discussed at a recent AHDB Talking Beef event in Northumberland.
In a recent study to determine whether colostrum quality was an issue in beef suckler herds, one-in-seven calves were found to have not received any colostral antibodies, with one-in-three not receiving enough.
These figures were highlighted by Alex Corbishley, lecturer and researcher at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, who had been involved in the study AHDB had carried out in conjunction with the university.
The research was carried out across 40 suckler herds in England during the 2018 spring calving season.
Although the proportion of calves which had experienced failure of passive transfer (FPT) may have had colostrum, Dr Corbishley explained the quality of the colostrum meant they had not received any colostral antibodies as a result.
Others experiencing poor passive transfer (PPT) had not received what they needed.
He said these figures were higher than anticipated and prompted questions around what the risk factors were to this scenario being the case.
Dr Corbishley said: “Calves which were assisted at birth, born a twin or within herds where the nutritional status was considered poor were among situations where FPT or PPT were more likely to occur, which could also be linked to colostrum production and calf vigour.
“This was also the first time poor energy balance in the run-up to calving has been associated with an increased risk of FPT and highlights the importance of good maternal nutrition in late pregnancy.”
Dr Corbishley said that among the herds takings part in the study, it was found not to be standard practice to give colostrum to calves which had experienced a difficult calving.
“Time and motivation has already been put into that calf during the difficult calving, so giving three litres of cow’s colostrum immediately should definitely be routine,” he said.
He added that when it was not possible to harvest colostrum off a particular cow, there were other options. These, he said, included sourcing colostrum from other cows in the herd, or sourcing colostrum from dairy farms as long as the disease status of the source was known and trusted.
Freezing spare colostrum, as long as it was thawed correctly, was recommended, as well as testing the quality of colostrum, particularly that coming in from external sources.
A refractometer, available online for about £15, was suggested as the simplest method to testing colostrum quality for sufficient antibody levels.
Dr Corbishley also stressed the importance of the correct nutrition in late pregnancy to promote ease of calving, colostrum quality and strong calf vigour and said that calving ease, and therefore calf size, should primarily be managed through genetics rather than restrictive feeding.
He said while nutritional restriction may be appropriate in early to mid-pregnancy, in instances where condition needed to be pulled off cows, doing so in the last month prior to calving was not recommended.
“The suckler cow is required to calve unaided, produce good quality colostrum and milk, and return to cycling within six weeks of calving,” he said.
“She will be unable to do this if she is nutritionally restricted in an attempt to limit calf size and reduce calving difficulty, and doing this in the last month prior to calving could actually increase the likelihood of calving problems.
“If you want a cow that is not going to become physically exhausted during calving, it needs to be fed according to its energy and protein needs, without excessively feeding or restricting.”
Dr Corbishley recommended cows should be at body condition score (BCS) 2.5-3 a month prior to calving and should be held at that through to service, keeping it stable and avoiding a BCS decline before mating which is associated with poor output.