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The method of active feeding has been shown to affect colostral antibody absorption, with teat feeding or tube feeding being optimal.
Calves left to suckle the dam are at a greater risk of low antibody absorption which is linked to increased morbidity and mortality.
However, the merits of actively teat feeding colostrum versus actively tube feeding colostrum have been widely debated.
This article discusses the pros and cons of both methods in preparation for the autumn calving season.
Getting in the groove
Adult cows have four functional stomachs: the rumen, the reticulum, the omasum and the abomasum.
In the pre-weaned calf, liquid milk and colostrum are digested in the fourth stomach, the abomasum.
In order for this to happen efficiently calves are born with a muscular fold of tissue which, when closed, forms a channel between the bottom of the oesophagus and the abomasum.
This is called the oesophageal groove. When the groove is closed, milk can bypass the first three stomachs, enabling liquid feed to be deposited directly into the abomasum.
The closure of the groove relies on a reflex which is triggered by the sights, sounds and smells of milk feeding. Drinking water is unlikely to stimulate this reflex.
The action of sucking is a strong stimulus for closure of the oesophageal groove.
Teat vs Tube
Teat feeding stimulates the natural reflex closure of the oesophageal groove, depositing colostrum and milk directly into the abomasum. This is the major benefit of teat feeding.
Fluid delivered by a tube feeder does not stimulate this reflex closure and fluid is deposited into the first three stomachs.
As a result, there is a potential time delay in absorption of colostral antibodies in calves fed colostrum with a tube feeder.
Colostrum needs to pass from the first three stomachs to the abomasum and then to the small intestine for absorption.
Studies have shown that the volume of colostrum fed by a tube feeder has an effect on the level of absorption of antibodies from colostrum.
Only 42% calves fed a small volume of colostrum (1.5L) by tube feeder had acceptable passive transfer of immunity, compared to 100% calves fed the same volume by a teat feeder.
However, calves fed a larger volume (3L) of colostrum with either a tube feeder or a teat feeder had no difference in passive transfer of immunity.
This shows that when calves are tube fed larger volumes of colostrum, there is overflow from the first three stomachs and rapid passage to the abomasum.
The decision of whether to feed colostrum by tube or by teat should take into consideration the time between birth and first feed, the volume of colostrum to be fed, the skill of the operator and the other workload.
Tube feeding requires specific training and can be fatal if not performed correctly. Ask your veterinarian for guidance on how to tube feed calves safely.
The same procedure is used to administer electrolytes to sick calves and is a useful skill to learn.
Tube feeding is quick and efficient with a known volume of colostrum being fed. This is particularly useful in seasonal calving herds where there can be a lot of newborn calves in a short period of time.
Tube feeding is ideal in tight calving patterns and when used to feed larger volumes of colostrum in a single feed.
As discussed, teat feeding is more natural, less invasive and allows optimal absorption.
It can be time consuming and frustrating and is often not an option when many new calves require active feeding of colostrum over a short timeframe.
Teat feeding is ideal when time permits and when smaller volumes of colostrum are fed, for example to lower birth weight calves.
Remember: It is the active feeding of any colostrum which will have the biggest impact on calf health. The method by which you feed colostrum is important but secondary to actually feeding it in the first place.
Dr Gemma Chuck is a veterinary advisor at Apiam Animal Health.