New Calf, How Can We Do Better?

February 10, 2020

A new born calf just landed in the straw. You are responsible for the success of the rest of its life. What now?

Assuming you are fortunate enough to be able to control the first things that happen to the calf when it comes into the world, here are the top things to consider.


We all know how important colostrum is for the newborn calf. It is the only way for the calf to absorb antibodies from its mother, get a high calorie meal, and start their life off on the right hoof. Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple.

While getting colostrum in the calf is of the utmost importance, there are many other things you need to consider.

  1. What is the quality?

I believe every farm should have a Brix Refractometer to test the quality of every feeding of colostrum that is given to a calf. You can feed large quantities of colostrum, but if the quality isn’t high enough, the calf won’t get the immunity it needs to protect its system in the first couple weeks of life. The industry standard for quality colostrum is a Brix reading of greater than 22 which is equal to 50 mg/mL of IgG.

2. Is it clean?

Feeding a calf colostrum that has a high bacteria count (greater than 20,000 cfu) can do more hurt than help in many cases. If the colostrum isn’t staying clean between harvest and feeding, the bacteria can cause many issues with the newborn. Some of these things include the bacteria beating the race to the open lining of the small intestine, which is waiting for the antibodies for immunity from the mother, bacterial infection of the gut, and reduced IgG or total protein levels. One of the best ways to prevent contamination is a pasteurizer specifically made for colostrum. If you try to do it on your own, you can run the risk of heat damaging the proteins, or not properly pasteurizing, which in return could make the problem worse by incubating the bacteria! Colostrum equipment can easily pick up bacteria because of the viscous nature of high quality colostrum, which in return opens the perfect opportunity for a biofilm to build up on the surface of these tools. Take a good look at everything your calf’s colostrum touches before it gets to the calf’s stomach. Is the bucket you collect it in clean? The bag or bottle it goes into? The esophageal tuber or nipple it goes through before it goes into the calf? I don’t mean it looks clean, I mean REALLY clean, less than 20 on the ATP meter clean.


The recommendation is to give 4 quarts within 2-4 hours after birth. I like to shoot for the stars and try to get that first feeding fed within 30 minutes to an hour. The faster the calf gets that first meal, the better chance they have of maximizing absorption of the immunoglobulins they get from the colostrum. Experts in veterinary practice and research say the calf should get 8 quarts within 12 hours, ideally equally spread over the 12 hours. Common practice is 4 quarts shortly after birth, with another 2 quarts within the next 12 hours. That seems to work well for most farms. We recently went to one feeding of 4 quarts. We found that the faster we got the calves out of the birthing pen, the better off they were for avoiding picking up other bacteria, which was causing scour issues. We continue to monitor IgG levels, and found that they remained consistently passing (greater than 5.5 IgG).

So, now the calf has gotten clean, quality colostrum, in a timely manner, now what?


Dipping navels is, in my opinion, is nearly as important as colostrum. The navel was how the calf had been receiving its nutrients for the past 9 months. It is a direct path into the calf’s body, and it is WIDE OPEN. Scary. If you leave this entrance open, only the bad guys will get in, and they will cause you a lot of trouble. The navel cord leads directly to the liver, if bacteria gets to the liver, it has the ability to get into the blood and spread to the whole body. It’s favorite place? The joints. When you have a calf with an enlarged joint, it is pretty safe to assume that some type of bad bacteria got in through the navel cord. Once that infection has settled into the joints it is very difficult and expensive to get out.

Above is an example of a partially dipped navel. The area is not well covered and there is only a small spot where the iodine actually stuck. This is not helping the calf out as much as it could be.

The key is PREVENTION, and the best part about this prevention plan is it is cheap and easy! All you need is a teat dip cup, Navel Guard and some well trained employees that will do a through job. We dip the calf THREE times before she is 24 hours old. The Navel Guard does a great job at drying, sealing, and disinfecting the navel and surrounding area. The main ingredient in Navel Guard is alcohol, this what does the bulk of the drying and sealing. If you try to go with something else, it will come back to bite you in the future, I promise. The last point on navels is dipping vs spraying. We have always dipped. There is extensive research done, showing the benefits of dipping. The navel is similar to a straw, when you spray you only get the outside, when you dip, you have a much better chance of getting the outside and the inside of the straw like structure of the navel cord.

Last, but by no means least,


The first thing I said was the calf dropped into a straw bed. Maybe that is sawdust (considering the price of quality straw this year), maybe you are lucky enough to have straw, maybe its sand. No matter what it is, what does it look like? Is there leftover fluids or afterbirth from the cow that gave birth before? Is there manure from said cow? When is the last time the pen was completely scooped out and new bedding was put in? When was the last time the walls, gates, and floors were washed and sanitized? If there is a calf holding area what does that look like? Is there manure on the walls from past calves? Is the bedding new? These are all things to look at when considering the environment.

Depending on the size of your maternity pen, the number of cows you calve per day/week, and the type of calving your farm does (just in time/1 week prefresh) you should put some time into deciding how often cleaning needs to be done. There are many articles on calving pens and square footage per cow. I won’t get into that here but I encourage you to look at some of the links I have attached at the end of this article and figure out a cleaning schedule for your maternity pen. This can make or break your calf program. As you probably know there is bacteria EVERYWHERE. The only thing you can do is try to knock down the number of bacteria, which in return will knock down the bacteria load your newborn calf has to fight off. Instead of fighting bacteria, they will have more time and energy to grow and spend less time sick and costing money. One thing you may want to consider is taking samples and sending them into a local lab for testing. You can learn a lot by taking manure samples from new calves and bedding samples from the pens. It will give you a much more clear picture of areas you can improve on and exactly what kind of bugs you are dealing with. With test results you can be very direct in your approach to managing maternity.

White walls, clean straw, and a pretty little calf up and ready to roll. What else could you want?!

If you have clean, quality colostrum, that is delivered quickly you can check one box. If you are already dipping navels, another check for you. Are you providing newborn calves with a clean environment to be born into? If so, you are doing an amazing job at getting your calves off to the best start possible, go you!

If you aren’t doing some of these things, that is okay. We are here to help! We will come to your farm and offer suggestions to things that could make your maternity pen thrive. We offer an initial visit and a follow up for FREE to allow us to get to know each other and see how much help you want from us, from there it is up to you. We can visit once a week, once a month, or once a year whatever fits your needs and your schedule. We have a vast knowledge of calves, and with a BS in Dairy Science, and 30 combined years of calf raising experience, it brings our knowledge full circle. We have the opportunity to do sanitation audits, tackle employee management strategies, and much more! There are many articles on maternity pens and colostrum management, but how many of those pages offer personalized assistance?

Leave a reply, send us an email, text us or call us! You can find our contact information on our About Us page. Let us show you what we can do for YOUR farm.

Links to calving pen sizing

Click to access Calving-Pen-Factsheet.pdf

Click to access DA3084-Day%20of%20Calving.pdf

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