By Chris Lati

The calf is the future cow. Without it, the heard is doomed.  Therefore, farmers must take appropriate steps to make sure the calf survives within the critical time of between 0 to 56 days. Central to their survival is how one gives them the colostrum, the first cow’s milk after birth.

Recently, I lost a calf because we did not provide it with enough colostrum, so it caught pneumonia and diarrhoea. If I had caught it early, I might have saved it. Part of the problems was that my workers and I were not keen on the tell-tale signs of the deadly diseases; sunken eyes, water diarrhoea, heavy respiration, rough hair coat, lack of skin elasticity (best sign), cold extremities (legs and ears), slow gradual loss of appetite, difficulty in standing up and unable to get up at all (prostration).

The treatment is usually a mixture of salt, baking powder and glucose, given orally for two days without giving it milk at that time.

But it is the importance of colostrums that farmers should know. Colostrum contains antibodies.  These are idle white cells that go directly into the blood stream to fight any infections, which in turn gives the calf immunity.

This is how you do it.  Immediately after birth, do not allow the calf to suck. Instead milk the mother and feed the calf two litres from the bottle. This will ensure that the calf does not ingest bacteria from the dirty teats. In the first 24 hours, it is advisable to disinfect the teats and the calf’s navel from time to time.  After six hours, give the calf another two litres.  In total ensure that the calf gets six litres in the first 12 hours because at this time the colostrum has more antibodies. It also gives the calf immunity against bacterial (e-coli) and viral infections.

Ensure that the equipment is washed after each use and dried in the sun to kill the pathogens.

Remember that first time calving heifers’colostrum has less antibodies. The best thing to do is to milk the older cows when they give birth and freeze the colostrum. It will not lose its potency. When thawing it, use a water bath (DO NOT boil it directly) until its 37° to 39°C then feed the calf.

If administered that way it acts as the first defence as the calf produces its own immunity. The calf will survive the first and subsequent attacks of diarrhoea and pneumonia.  It is equally important to dip the calf as well as immunise against foot and mouth disease, lumpy skin etc.

On the second day, start the calf on the transitional milk. Use 10 percent of its body weight to calculate how much milk to give it. Too much milk will cause diarrhoea as well. For example, if it is 30kg give it three litres daily – one and half in the morning and the rest in the evening.

A lot of farmers believe that whole milk or milk replacer is the only diet a calf needs but pellets or good quality hay is better for its quick growth. Limit milk feeding with the above mentioned method and feed it more solids. Pellets should be introduced four days after birth and continued until they are fourth months.

The transitional milk should be fed at 37° to 39° C and be of high quality. That means the protein content should be 22 per cent and fat above 10 per cent. I recommend buying from reputable animal feed companies.

Housing must be properly ventilated, washed thoroughly then disinfected. The stall must have clean water, block of salt and a feeding trough for the pellets and hay. Protect them from cold winds and keep their stalls free from moist to avoid them catching pneumonia.

Keep in them in separate stalls until they are four months old when they can share a common area and even go out to pasture. Calves are fond of sucking each other’s ears hence can pick up diseases.

Weaning should take place when the calf is growing well and is consuming one percent of its body weight in solid food; a 40kg calf will eat 400gms. Most calves should be weaned between 35 to 56 days, however milk should continue to be given to the weak calves. For the larger breeds like Friesian, it should be given 700 to 800 grams and for the small breeds like jersey should be given 500 to 600 grams.

I have done this for the last three years, the success rate has been 95 percent. It seems like tedious work but that is what is going to be the future herd.

Chris Lati, a retired intelligence officer, is the founders of Makasa Dairy Farm – Emali, Makueni County. His love and passion for dairy cattle in his preoccupation. To him, the four teats of a cow are life a factory that puts shillings in the pocket every day! “Who could ask for anything better?” he wonders.

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