Looking after colostrum cows

Looking after colostrum cows
By Katrina Roberts, Anexa FVC Herd Health Veterinarian

By the time you read this you’ll most likely have your first calves on the ground. If you are well prepared then all of the set up for calving has been done with average pasture cover, cow BCS, round length, supplements on hand, mineral supplements and herd vaccinations all ticked off. You may think that now you just sit back and wait to see what the weather throws at you. However, there is still one group of cows, which if managed well can have a profound effect on this season’s performance.

I am sure you all have a “love / hate” relationship with the colostrum mob, but it is these cows that are the most important mob on the farm.

Some of the key management tips for this important mob of cows are;

  • Get the calf off the cow and the cow milked as soon as possible after calving. There is research in many fields (including research from our own Cognosco group) that support this management strategy. The less time the cow has a calf on her and the quicker she is milked out fully, the less likely she is to get mastitis, the more likely she is to get eating, the less likely she will sit down with milk fever and the more milk she will produce. Also the calf is better off as the calf is less likely to get navel ill and more likely to get the right amount of good quality colostrum (if you have a tubing policy on your farm). The colostrum in the udder also deteriorates over time (both in the udder and in the bucket) so the fresher it’s collected the better.
  • These cows must be offered ad libitum high quality feed. After calving these animals do not have their full appetite and therefore if they are not offered food and plenty of it, they will not compete with the cows in the mob that calved 4-5 days ago. Colostrum cows will not graze to 1500-1600 and therefore accepting that this mob will have slightly higher residuals than the milking herd is what needs to occur. There is no point filling these cows up with poor quality silage, or hay either, as this will end up suppressing intakes further leading to further condition loss.
  • Ensuring the colostrum cows get the right amount of minerals supplemented in the right way is crucial. Making assumptions about intakes of grass or PKE to get their minerals is not good enough. We know it is normal for calcium levels to be low for 24-36h after calving, but we want these cows to get out of this low level as quickly as possible. We also know that older cows (6+) stay lower for longer and are therefore at risk of becoming a down cow in the colostrum mob. Dusting a fresh break of grass with lime flour once a day at 200-300g/cow, and on some farms 200g dusted on fresh breaks twice a day is recommended. However, if your colostrum cows are getting access to supplements (maize or PKE) then lime flour should be mixed in with the supplements as well, at the appropriate rates. Lime flour is not very palatable so just adding lots of lime flour to the maize silage will most likely result in reduced intakes which is NOT what we want for this mob. These cows also need magnesium which can be dusted with the lime flour, drenched, mixed with the supplement or added to the water, the method of supplementation of mag will be farm specific, so speak to your vet about ways of tweaking it for this mob.
  • Be vigilant about checking for mastitis. Strip the freshly-calved cow at first milking onto a dark surface (RMT paddle is useful for this) looking for any changes in the milk. You can use teat spray on cows in the colostrum mob both pre and post milking, as the milk is not being used for human consumption. Ensure you wait for the teat spray to dry before you cup the cow. Ideally, mastitis cows should not be run in with the colostrum cows but if there is a mastitis cow it should be milked after the colostrum cows to reduce the risk of cross infection. Ensure you milk out the colostrum cows fully as milk left in the udder is a mastitis risk. Handle the colostrum cows quietly as cows that are stressed will not let down their milk. If you have used a teat sealant at drying off or in the heifers, ensure you hand strip as much sealant out as possible. Once a cow leaves the colostrum mob it is often hard to find them, therefore they need to leave the colostrum mob çlean and uninfected’ otherwise they will be potentially infecting other cows. It is also easier to clear up an infection when the infection is recent and most infections that occur within 30 days of calving have been picked up during the dry period, therefore if you look hard enough you should find the clinical cases in the colostrum mob. Using the RMT paddle at the end of the colostrum period as a screening tool is a great way of making sure that ONLY clean low SCC cows enter the milking mob.
  • It is possible that milking the colostrum cows OAD may have some positive benefits. It will definitely reduce the workload on farm and therefore mean that other jobs are done better and with more care and attention, which will in turn lead to better outcomes. There is also some research to suggest it may reduce calcium demand and reduce negative energy balance, however there is still more to learn in this area. There are some potential negatives though as milking colostrum cows OAD does potentially increase the risk of IS grades as the dry cow therapy antibiotics have been testing with TAD milking to clear antibiotic from the udder and the risk of higher SCC if cows are not being checked twice daily at this high risk time. The contract you have with your milk company outlines the conditions of supply, which includes a specified number of milkings in the colostrum mob.
  • Choose paddocks for these cows wisely. That is do not use effluent paddocks if you can avoid them as these will be high in potassium, which increases the risk of milk fever. Don’t have them graze near the calf barn as this will reduce the cows’ grazing time while they instead spend time bellowing for their calf. If you are feeding PKE in trailers in the paddocks, you may need to consider where the trailer needs to be located to achieve optimum intake.
  • Aim to prevent, treat and record all animal health issues. Are there any sub groups of cows that you learned about last season that struggle in your herd that you can treat before a problem arises such as carryovers, late calvers, cows in BCS 4 at calving. Health conditions like retained afterbirth, milk fever, assisted calvings and twins all greatly increase the chance of further complications like ketosis. Being proactive but responsible with antibiotics, anti-inflammatories and starter drenches in these at risk cows will make a big difference to their recovery and their performance for the season.

  • If you want to check on the performance of your colostrum cows we can check their energy status cow-side, and we can now check calcium and magnesium levels in the main clinics at our lab. This means a quicker turn-around time for you. These conditions (ketosis, hypocalcaemia and hypomagnesemia) are obvious when a cow shows clinical disease, however they are causing production and reproduction losses long before clinical signs are apparent. Therefore monitoring the herd performance is extremely useful for optimising performance. For more information about whether this extra testing may be of benefit for your herd please speak to your vet.

    The key is that a cow or heifer must leave colostrum mob ready to compete with a middle-aged-aggressive cow calved 6 weeks ago!

    Date Added: Friday, 7th July 2017