Providing cows with important minerals, vitamins and trace elements during the dry period is lifting colostrum quality and driving cow and calf health and performance at a Co. Fermanagh dairy farm.

Father and son John and William Rutledge run a herd of 160 Holstein Friesians on the outskirts of Derrylin.

Their cows produce an average annual milk yield of 8,500L on a twice-a-day milking system. The herd calves in a block from September to early March, with drying off eight weeks before the due calving date.

At this point, Lifeline Pre-Calver buckets are introduced.

Cow and calf health

Dr. Amanda Dunn, of Lifeline manufacturer Uniblock, advises that this is the ideal time to introduce these as colostrum formation begins approximately five weeks before calving.

Lifeline Pre-Calver is formulated with the calf and the cow in mind as it contains immune-boosting ingredients that stimulate the cow’s immune system during the final weeks of pregnancy, increasing antibody levels in the colostrum, Dr. Dunn explained.

“Looking after the calf does not start when the calf is born, but with the dry cow,’’ she said.

Two Lifeline buckets are allocated for every 30 cows at the Rutledges’ farm and these are available at all times; two 18kg buckets usually last each group around a fortnight.

“The cows seem to really love the Lifeline Pre-Calver, it is very palatable and there are no issues with getting good intakes,” William said.

The Rutledges source the buckets from Ivor Wilson at Wilson Agri Merchants, Teemore, County Fermanagh.

Alongside Lifeline Pre-Calver, cows are fed a total mixed ration of dry cow silage, straw and 1.5kg blend.

Importance of colostrum

William quality tests all colostrum produced in the first milking – Lifeline Pre-Calver is patented to boost colostrum quality by 25%.

“Since introducing Lifeline into the cows’ diet, the majority of the colostrum tested is excellent, and this gives great peace of mind that we are giving the calves the best start in life,’’ he says.

Dr. Dunn believes that the importance of good quality colostrum for newborn calves cannot be overstated.

“Calves are born totally naïve of immunity and rely solely on colostrum as a source of passive immunity,’’ she said.

As well as antibodies, colostrum contains an abundance of other bio-active factors, growth hormones, maternal cells and oligosaccharides and has higher levels of fat, protein, vitamins and minerals than standard milk.

All these components play a significant role in developing the calf’s immune system, especially its underdeveloped gut.

Without good-quality colostrum calves are much more likely to succumb to ill thrift, enteric diseases and mortality in their first few weeks of life.

“Making the most of this ‘free’ source of nutrition is therefore highly recommended,’’ Dr. Dunn said.

William manually feeds all calves a minimum of 10% of their birthweight in colostrum as soon as possible after calving. As birthweight mostly ranges from 30-40kg this equates to 3-4L of colostrum at that all important first feed.

There are two main reasons for getting good quality colostrum fed quickly, says Dr Dunn.

“Colostrum quality, measured by IgG levels, decreases at the rate of approximately 4% every hour post-calving, therefore the sooner it is collected from the cow the better quality that colostrum will be,’’ she says.

Also, the calf has a short window of opportunity to absorb antibodies from colostrum into the bloodstream post-birth – this window disappears when the calf is 24 hours old.

William says his calves are very vigorous. “That’s the main thing, they are keen to suck and tend to thrive very well,’’ he said.

Herd health

The minerals in Lifeline Pre-Calver aid the calving process.

“Herd fertility is excellent too with cows getting back into calf easily,” said William.

He uses collars to aid heat detection. With more information around breeding activity, he can make informed decisions on the optimum time for insemination.

Getting the timing right means higher conception and pregnancy rates, but feeding the correct minerals during the dry period also has a positive influence on cow fertility and health post calving, he said.

Post-calving is the most common period for cows to become sick because they are at risk of metabolic diseases, in part because they are at their most vulnerable when their immunity is compromised at calving.

If the pregnant cow lacks the necessary minerals and vitamins, there will be an increased risk of post-calving health issues such as retained cleanings; milk fever; ketosis; poor dry matter intakes; poor quality colostrum; displaced abomasum; and fertility problems later on according to Dr. Dunn.

“Providing the dry cow with the correct vitamins and minerals is vitally important to the calf as these are then available in the colostrum,” she said.

Since he introduced Lifeline Pre-Calver to the herd diet, the Rutledges have had no issues with milk fever or retained cleanings

“When it comes to trying new products, the cows will soon tell us if those products aren’t doing what it says on the bucket,’’ William said.

Protected sources of copper and zinc are included in the Lifeline Pre-Calver formulation instead of copper and zinc sulphates or oxides as these protected sources are more bioavailable, palatable and result in better performance, intakes and efficiency.

Lifeline Pre-Calver is also available in bags as a crumb but William’s preference is for buckets as they are convenient and they suited his system. 

Overall, he says he is delighted with the calves that are produced from cows fed Lifeline Pre-Calver and with the health of his cows post-calving.

To shop Lifeline pre-calver, click here.