Plenty of Options for Raising Ophans

Published on Thu, 11/19/2020 - 2:14pm

 Plenty of Options for Raising Ophans.

 By Jaclyn Krymowski

Orphan calves crop up during any calving season for several reasons. A first-calf heifer might not take to her newfound maternal instincts very well, an older cow might have twins for the first time and only take a liking to one, or the hormones just might not kick in right. Some years you may not have a single incident, and others you might have a whole slew of them at once.

Because orphans open up a cause for additional labor and the risk for production loss, you certainly want to have multiple options available – and some extra tricks up the sleeve to give these disadvantaged calves their very best shot at life.

Initial choices
Obviously the best-case scenario would be to not have an orphan at all. This makes grafting or getting the dam to accept her calf appealing options. Before you undertake either one of these, the first step is to access the situation. If you come across a wet newborn with no dam in sight, colostrum should be your first concern. Colostrum can only offer immunity benefits if fed before an animal is 24-hours old, after that mark the gut closes and the immunoglobulins can no longer be absorbed. If the dam is in question, monitor the newborn extremely carefully for the next few hours. If it goes unclaimed, you must hand-feed colostrum.

Colostrum is something you never want to be without. While there are powdered replacers on the market with immunoglobulins, straight from the cow is much preferred. If you ever have the opportunity to milk out one of your own cows after a stillbirth, take advantage and freeze her colostrum exclusively for emergency orphans. Colostrum from your own herd has been exposed to the typical pathogens in your specific environment making it especially advantageous. The next best thing to this would be to purchase frozen colostrum from a nearby dairy. Many dairies test their colostrum with a brix refractometer, so you can be sure your purchase is high enough quality. Beyond that, consult your vet on what his or her recommendation is for powdered replacements.

Once colostrum has been taken care of, you can consider the next set of options. If the calf is orphaned because of an inexperienced mother, hobbles may suffice until the cow gets used to the calf nursing. This will require the additional labor to corral the cow and keeping her somewhere in close proximity for frequent check-ins. If you have a cow with a dead calf who could nurse a new one, there are a few ways to attempt a graft, including laying the dead calfskin over the live calf or trying a commercial scented product to encourage adoption. Depending on the layout and management of your ranch, it may very well not be worth the trouble of grafting and easier to just hand raise calves, especially if you have the facilities for doing so.

Bottle or bucket?
As with colostrum, you want to be sure you have all the emergency supplies on hand necessary to care for calves. At the very least, you want bottles, nipples, milk replacer, products for good sanitization and safe well-bedded housing.

Milk replacer is truly one of those things where “you get what you pay for” and demands you make the best investment you can. Again, if you have a local dairy nearby you may be able to get frozen milk. In a perfect world, this would be the go-to option, but it may be not be realistic if you don’t have a place to store the supply. Fortunately, there are many high quality powdered milk replacers available, most realistic for many ranches. Assuming they are mixed, handled and fed correctly, research supports their effectiveness.

While the price might give you some kind of idea about the quality of replacer you are purchasing, nutritional composition and the ingredients are where you can identify the true value. To ensure you are feeding a product that meets the unique needs of your operation (this can vary according to breed), it is best to consult your veterinarian and/or nutritionist for recommendations. You can also speak with colleagues who have found successful products if their operations are similar to your own.

The Bovine Alliance on Management & Nutrition has a good guideline on milk replacer types and qualities for the uninitiated available online. It outlines the main protein sources you commonly see in milk replacer ingredients, medications, and other indicators for quality making it a good starting place to get familiar with what you’re looking at.

The next question is how you are going to feed milk. Calf feedings can be done two or three times a day at different portions, depending on labor availability and how hard you’re pushing for rate of gain. Perhaps more polarizing than how much or how often you feed milk is the mode of delivery. The debate for nipple versus bucket raising has gone on about as long as we’ve been raising calves. Bucket raising has a lot of labor advantages for feeding and cleaning. Many dairies and ranches have much success using buckets over bottles. Calves can be trained to drink from a bucket fairly early on in life, but it is recommended the first few feedings be on the bottle to reduce risk of milk going into abomasum and ensure the calf is suckling properly.

If you are feeding multiple calves, calf bars are another option. But if you are going through this route it is best to do one that allows you to place individual bottles instead of in a tank with nipples. When group feeding from a communal source, you are guaranteed to make winner and loser calves and it is impossible to know how much each is consuming until it is too late, and you have sick or dead calves. Likewise, bulk calf bars must be thoroughly cleaned and sanitized after every single feeding, which is more labor than at a first glance.

Other considerations
A big piece of the calf raising puzzle is figuring out the weaning process. One of the advantages you have when feeding calves by hand is you have total control of weaning time and method. You can wean as early as 10 to 12 weeks when hand raising if you have been feeding a starting grain and preparing for a smooth transition. Offering free-choice grain while feeding milk begins early rumen development, significantly faster than forages alone do. This is because grain digestion begins the production of the three volatile fatty acids in the rumen which cause this organ to mature. But like milk, calf starter needs to be of a high quality.

To do this successfully, not only do you want your calves to be consuming sufficient grain before they are introduced to forages, coccidiosis prevention needs to be incorporated. Because coccidia thrives in confined environments typical to calf raising, it is necessary to either feed a grain treated with a coccidiostat or administer the medication orally. But once calves are weaned and consuming grain and forage, they will be ready to utilize pasture at any earlier age.

Raising orphaned calves is an unfortunate reality, but it is certainly not a death sentence for these underprivileged animals. In fact, when managed correctly, they could very well end up out-performing even their dam-raised counterparts. There is no one way set in stone guaranteed to will work for every management style, but there are enough options out there for any ranch to be successful with orphans.