Natal care in great detail

Natal care in great detail

ow many calves have you delivered by now? Possibly hundreds? Has the calving process become routine? You will probably answer No. Each birth is unique after all, and requires your undivided attention for the cow and calf. Does your method still meet all the conditions for good natal care and hygiene? Compare it with the protocol, for the first successful step in the rearing process.

Calving pen 1

  1. When designing the calving barn, think in terms of convenience for yourself and comfort and hygiene for the cow and calf.
  2. The standard for the number of calving pens is 3% of the total number of dairy cattle, for example 3 pens per 100 cows.
  3. The guideline for the pen size is 8 to 20 m2.
  4. Make sure the cow is easy to monitor.
  5. The pen must be accessible with a tractor or loader. This allows for easy moving of a sick cow if necessary and for cleaning out the calving pen.
  6. Avoid stress! The cow will calve more easily if she retains contact with the rest of the group. If the calving pen is completely secluded, move the cow to the calving pen a few days before calving, so that she can get used to it.

Calving pen hygiene 2

  1. Good ventilation and a fresh atmosphere are essential.
  2. The calving pen must be dry, clean and disinfected, with a fresh layer of straw.
  3. Put on clean clothes and clean boots before entering the pen.
  4. Ensure fresh and clean drinking water and a good supply of feed ration.

Cleaning rear of cow 3

  1. Calving always entails the risk of infection. Put hygiene first.
  2. Start by thoroughly cleaning and disinfecting the rear of the cow.
  3. This prevents infection of the calf, but also discharge and infection of the uterus, and retention of the placenta.
  4. Be sure to also disinfect any equipment, for the same reason.

Birth of calf 4

  1. Once the calf is born, check if it is breathing.
  2. If it is breathing properly, remove the calf from the cow immediately. This minimises the risk of infection via manure (including Para TBC), especially if the farm health status is not optimum.
  3. If you prefer to have the cow lick the calf dry, lay the calf in front of the cow, preferably separated by a feed rack. Whatever the situation, avoid the risk of the calf ingesting manure as much as possible.

Rubbing the calf dry 5

  1. Rub the calf vigorously with straw to dry it.
  2. This promotes the breathing process and blood circulation, which helps the calf stand more quickly. Most calves are on their feet within 60 to 90 minutes after birth.
  3. Rubbing them dry also stimulates initial evacuation of faeces and urine, and helps prevent them cooling

Disinfection of navel 6

  1. Disinfect the navel with iodine tincture (in a 10% iodine solution).
  2. Make sure your hands are clean and do not pour any iodine tincture in the navel!

Individual pen/igloo 7

  1. House the calf in a well-cleaned and disinfected individual pen or igloo containing clean straw.
  2. Mobile pens are easier to spray clean.
  3. Make sure you have plenty of individual pens versus the number of calves, so that the pens can stand empty for a while. This ensures optimum hygiene. 

Colostrum within 1 hour 8

  1. Within an hour after birth, feed the calf 4 litres of controlled quality colostrum.
  2. The calf is generally alert enough to drink from a teat bottle shortly after birth.
  3. See the Sprayfo colostrum protocol for the first colostrum feeding.

Rinsing of rear and vulva 9

  1. Rinse the cow's rear end and vulva with cold water to reduce any swelling.
  2. Leave the cow to rest for 5 to 10 minutes and then have her stand up. This brings the uterus back into position and frees any blocked nerves and blood vessels.
  3. If the cow continues to strain, check for a second calf (and otherwise the cow can stand immediately). The placenta must be expelled within 6 hours. If not, warn a vet.

Provision of energy drink 10

After calving, it is important to supplement any fluids and minerals lost by the cow. Therefore, feed her an energy drink, such as Farm-O-San Reviva, immediately after calving therefore. This helps establish a good energy balance and roughage intake by the cow.

The first feed must be absolutely optimum

The first colostrum is by far the most important meal a cow will ever have. We cannot emphasize this enough. Yet 50% of the colostrum at the average dairy farm contains less antibodies than calves require in their first feed! All the more reason to work through the protocol for colostrum from A to Z.

Why is the colostrum so important?

At birth, calves do not have antibodies to ward off pathogens, and therefore have no resistance at all to any ambient diseases. The calf can only build up the necessary antibodies by drinking sufficient good-quality colostrum as soon as possible after its birth. Good colostrum contains not only antibodies but also ingredients which stimulate initial evacuation of faeces, and easily digestible nutrients, minerals and vitamins.

The antibodies in colostrum are contained in the large protein molecules, known as immunoglobulins. Calves are only capable of absorbing these fully intact antibodies from the milk during the first 24 hours following their birth. This has two reasons:

  1. The level of acidity in the fourth stomach is still so high that the antibodies are not broken down.
  2. The intestinal wall allows absorption of the intact antibodies during the first 24 hours, and no longer than that.

So what is quick, sufficient and good?

  • Quick: provide the first feed within 1 hour of calving. The calf's capacity to absorb the antibodies properly is highest directly after birth, and declines with each passing hour.
  • Sufficient: the first 4 litres within an hour of calving and a total of approximately 6 litres within 24 hours. These volumes are required to make the most of the calf's absorption capacity and to give the animal maximum resistance and growth opportunities right from day one.
  • Good: In any case, colostrum from a cow present at the farm for some time, who will therefore have developed antibodies to location-specific pathogens. This is not necessarily the colostrum produced by the calf's own mother! In fact: another cow's colostrum can sometimes be better quality. It is essential that you check the quality of the colostrum for purity and concentration of antibodies. The calf must cope with only the antibodies from the colostrum for the first weeks; calves require 3 weeks to develop their own resistance to disease.

Mother cow colostrum or frozen version?

An excellent system of colostrum management is required in order to guarantee all calves receive sufficient, good quality colostrum within an hour of their birth. Can you manage that within an hour? Can you milk the mother so quickly and also check her colostrum? And if you use frozen colostrum, how can you bring it to the required 40° C temperature on time?

The question also arises whether you should feed colostrum from the mother or controlled quality colostrum from another cow who has been at the farm longer.

Sprayfo focuses on the quality of the colostrum and the speed with which you can feed it to the calf. In practice, it is often difficult to milk the mother within an hour of her calving, to check her colostrum and to feed the calf 4 litres of controlled colostrum. Another cow's controlled colostrum from the freezer is an excellent and sometimes even better alternative if the mother's colostrum is lacking in quality. 

Milking colostrum:

If you want to feed the calf its own mother's colostrum, milk the cow to collect at least 4 litres of colostrum directly after calving. Check that there is no visible dirt floating in the colostrum and check the concentration of antibodies in the colostrum directly after milking. Various types of colostrum meters are available for this purpose.

Once the colostrum has been approved, feed the calf 4 litres within an hour of its birth [see colostrum feeding protocol]. If the mother does not produce enough colostrum for her calf, use the controlled frozen colostrum.

If you do not feed the calf colostrum from its own mother, milk the cow within 6 hours of calving. This colostrum can then be checked, and frozen for a first feed in the future, if the quality is approved.

Colostrum feeding protocol

Within an hour of the birth, feed the calf 4 litres of controlled quality colostrum. This may be colostrum from the mother cow, approved colostrum from another cow on the farm or approved, frozen colostrum.

Healthy calves drink 3-4 litres of colostrum without a problem. The calf's fourth stomach is small to start with (holding 2.5 litres), but soon grows once the calf is fed.

The temperature of the colostrum must be as close to the calf's body temperature as possible, i.e. around 40 degrees. Always use an immersion bath for the heating process.

Never heat colostrum in the microwave! Make sure the colostrum is heated evenly, without overheating.

When possible, feed using a teat bottle, as this gives the best possible feeding take-up.

If the calf is not strong enough to drink properly, use a feeding tube. For weak calves in particular, the 4 litres of colostrum are extremely important.

When using a feeding tube, the colostrum is fed into the fourth stomach. This is only possible for the very first feed, as the rumen in still sterile and clean at this point. After a number of days, bacteria develops in the rumen, so that tube feeding is no longer possible.

If the calf is born early in the morning, a second colostrum feed is given after 12-16 hours. Feed the calf approximately 2 litres.

A colostrum mix (transition milk) can be fed after the first day, and is subject to other conditions. Read all about feeding after the 1st day in step 4.

Calf immunity develops more quickly with extra vitamins and minerals

Antibodies in the colostrum can only protect the newborn calf against pathogens for the first few days of its life. The young animal must therefore develop strong immunity to disease as soon as possible after birth. The best possible resistance is built up through intensive milk feeding following the colostrum, with extra iron, vitamins and minerals. 

The antibodies in the colostrum give the calf so-called passive immunity, which it needs in order to get through its first days. In step 2, we describe the protocol for effective colostrum management and thereby optimum development of the passive immunity, which otherwise starts to decline within a few days of the colostrum. In order to stay healthy therefore, the calf must quickly build up its own active immunity, within 14 to 21 days. From then on, calves will be less susceptible to disease.

Resistance under the critical level for as short as possible

The rule of thumb is: the better the first (colostrum) feed and the better the milk fed from day 2, the smaller the risk of the calf having less immunity and therefore being more susceptible to disease at any point in the first 21 days. The challenge is therefore to apply optimum colostrum management to extend the passive immunity as long as possible while developing the active immunity as quickly and strongly as possible. However: there will always be a (slight) risk of the immunity being under the critical level at some point.

Extra vitamins and minerals for the calf

This risk can be limited or even precluded by adding extra vitamins, minerals and trace elements to the milk feed for five consecutive days as from day two, including extra iron to combat anaemia.

These extra additives are useful and possibly even essential, because a calf's vitamin and mineral requirements in the first days cannot be met by what it receives via calf replacement milk. Good calf's milk contains a balanced menu of vitamins and minerals, and the calf's requirements can be largely met by means of intensive feeding (see step 5). In the early days of feed intake however, the supply very rarely meets what the calf needs for optimum immunity development.

By enriching the milk (colostrum and calf milk) with essential nutrients, you give the calf the best possible start in life. The calf will quickly grow stronger and develop active immunity more quickly.

Note: this is only effective if the initial colostrum feed (step 2) and the start-up with calf milk (step 5) are implemented and planned well. The combination is what counts: addition of vitamins and minerals can never compensate poor colostrum management or a poor start-up with calf milk.

Good immunity development due to optimum colostrum management, intensive calf milk feeding following the colostrum and extra vitamins and minerals as from day 1.


There are various products which make it simple to mix extra vitamins, minerals and trace elements through the colostrum and the calf milk. An example is Farm-O-San StartFit. StartFit includes substances which trigger the calf's appetite and therefore stimulate it to take in milk. An important component is easily absorbed iron. Young calves soon suffer from anaemia, so that extra iron is very welcome. StartFit is also a suitable solution for older calves who need a nutrition boost for various reasons.

5-day course

StartFit is very simple to use. Per meal, dissolve 5 grams of StartFit in the milk. We advise starting this straight away in the colostrum. The calf then receives a 5-day 'course of vitamins'.

Older calves which need an extra boost, following illness or transport stress for example, can also be fed 5 grams per milk feed for 5 consecutive days. Always pay attention to the temperature of the milk, which needs to be approximately 40 degrees. Overly cold milk will give problems.

Effective feeding after the colostrum

The calf needs to start developing its active immunity straight after the colostrum feed. A good follow-up is therefore very important. In the practical situation, feeding on days 2 and 3 is frequently underestimated.

The greatest diversity in calves at various farms can be seen in the first week, mainly due to major differences in the approach taken following the initial colostrum feed. A few years ago, feeding was limited in the first week in order to avoid problems with diarrhoea. Limited feeding results in less manure and thereby the impression of less problems. However, a consequence is that the calves do not have sufficient energy for maintenance and growth.

Focussed feeding for growth.

After the initial colostrum, the digestive system must be activated and the calf must develop its own immunity. Nutrition plays an essential role here. A calf requires the equivalent of 500 grams of milk powder on day 2, which equals 4 litres of transition milk.

It must grow in order to strengthen the intestinal tract. The calf's growth can also be translated into development of all organs, including the digestive system and the immune system. Focussed feeding for growth is therefore the name of the game in those first days.

2 times 3 litres of milk from the second milking

Once colostrum has been fed according to protocol, effective follow-up feeding is important. The most simple method is to feed 2 times 3 litres of milk per day. This requires milk from the second milking of the cow, warm and obviously fed from a clean rearing bucket.

This second milking milk is still richer in fats and proteins than normal milk, and also contains immunoglobulins. These immunoglobulins are no longer absorbed into the bloodstream, instead they combat harmful bacteria in the intestine and reinforce the intestinal wall, effectively stopping the causes of diarrhoea. Many dairy farmers feed calves with diarrhoea an extra 0.5 to 1 litre of colostrum per day. It is a tried and trusted solution which is effective.

Most Holstein calves weigh approximately 40 kg at birth. This can be considerably less for other breeds, and the volume of milk per feed should be adapted to the lower birth weight.

Calf only grows from milk in week 1

In the first week of its life, the calf needs milk to grow. Faeces from calves fed only milk are somewhat thinner and more yellow than when concentrated feed is given. If you feed 2 times 3 litres, the calf will receive sufficient nutrients. The faeces will often be thinner, but of an even consistency. This is not diarrhoea, it is normal for a calf of a few days old.

Concentrated feed is not necessary in the first 3 to 5 days, and should not be started until after the first week. Roughage is not at all needed in this phase, and can wait until after 2 weeks. It is important to provide water however: start this on day 3.

Smart and problem-free introduction of calf milk replacer

After the colostrum, the focus needs to be on growth and development of the calf's immunity. Poor feeding in the initial days can have immediate consequences for the development of the calf into a productive dairy cow. Start with a high dosage of calf milk replacer directly after the colostrum therefore.

Calf milk replacer is introduced after the initial colostrum or after a few days.

Most dairy farmers switch to calf milk replacer after 1, 2 or 3 days of colostrum. The timing depends on the farmer's management. Some dairy farmers switch directly to calf milk replacer after the colostrum in order to minimise the risk of transfer of pathogens from the cow to the calf. Others continue to feed colostrum on days 2 and 3, due to it being rich in nutrients and contributing to intestinal health.

Both systems have advantages: one focuses on limitation of disease transmission, the other on the calves' immunity. The health status and other specific farm aspects determine what is best for individual farms.

A mix of calf milk replacer and colostrum or 100 percent calf milk replacer directly

The manner of switching from colostrum to calf milk replacer also varies. Where some dairy farmers immediately introduce 100 percent calf milk replacer, others mix 1 or more calf milk feeds through the colostrum. As long as the calf milk replacer is mixed in the correct concentration, direct switching is very rarely problematic however.

Keep the litre volume constant

It is important not to increase the feed volume on the day of switching. After feeding 2 times 3 litres of colostrum therefore, also start with 2 times 3 litres of calf milk replacer. During the first week, the concentration of calf milk replacer must be 150 grams per litre. This feeding method allows the calf to continue to grow. The intestinal tract remains filled and becomes stronger each day.

Rearing bucket best solution for first days

In the first few days, it is advisable to feed via a teat. The sucking motion and saliva formed transports the milk directly to the fourth stomach. The milk is digested evenly and comprehensively, and the calf will grow and develop incredibly quickly.

Never underestimate hygiene!

Calves are extremely sensitive to fluctuations and cleanliness in the first days of their lives. Ensure that each milk feed is freshly prepared therefore. All equipment must be cleaned after each feed. Prepare and feed the milk in a clean, orderly and consistent manner.

Only milk suffices in the first week

Many problems can be avoided by only feeding milk during the first days, and staying away from pellets or muesli. After the first 5 days, the calves can be fed a handful of calf pellets. Make sure they are dust-free and agreeably tasting. Replenish the calf pellets at least once daily. Calves who are fed sufficient milk will require little to no concentrated feed in their first week. That is by no means a problem in this phase.

There is no need to feed muesli. Muesli is often fed because it looks so healthy. Muesli is sweet and tasty. However, the risk is that calves will eat too much muesli, which they cannot digest well in the first week, thus increasing the risk of diarrhoea.

Maximise the growth potential of the calf

Good nutrition remains important throughout the period up until weaning of course. It is however extra important during the first week of life. As a dairy farmer, you have but one chance to effectively initiate the immunity development and growth of the calf. That growth is essential for prompt development of the gastro-intestinal system, the organs and the udder tissue. Optimum growth right from day one prevents diseases and growth stops in the period up to weaning, allowing you to take full advantage of the genetic potential of the animal at a later stage.