A newborn calf's first meal from its mama helps it survive the first week of life - and has a long-term impact on health, says a University of Missouri (MU) veterinarian.

Colostrum, the first milk given by a cow after calving, is rich not only in nutrients but also comes packed with antibodies to help ward off diseases.

Failure to get that first milk can have serious consequences for the calf, says Bob Larson, Extension veterinarian with the MU Commercial Agriculture Beef Focus Team.

"Cattle do not pass any antibodies from the mother to the fetus prior to birth," Larson says. "The calf relies on the antibodies present in colostrum to provide disease protection."

Speed in getting that first colostrum is important. The calf is capable of absorbing the antibodies for only a short time. After 12 hours, absorption of antibodies declines sharply and disappears after 24 hours, Larson says.

For a calf to absorb adequate colostrum, the calf must be able to rise, walk, find the teat and suckle. Most healthy calves do that naturally. But, difficulties in calving can leave the calf and cow too weak to make the connection.

A difficult birth, if it does not result in death, can cause later difficulties if the calf doesn't suckle quickly.

Studies at the USDA Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center, NE, show that half of the calf early-death loss occurs because of calving difficulty. Most other calf deaths occur in the first 10 days, mainly from infectious diseases such as scours and pneumonia.

Research also shows that calves not getting adequate colostrum in the first 24 hours of their lives have higher rates of sickness and death as late as when they are in the feedlot.

Producers can help ensure the calf receives its first meal from its mother. After a difficult birth, the cow may reject the calf. The cow may need to be restrained and the calf assisted in finding the udder.

Good cow management, including diet, can help improve the quality of the colostrum produced by the cow, Larson says. Studies show that cows receiving adequate protein in their diet prior to calving have colostrum higher in protective qualities.

"Heifers and cows in good body condition at calving are more likely to produce adequate high-quality colostrum than thin animals," Larson says.

Frozen colostrum and commercial colostral supplements given by bottle are not as effective as colostrum received from natural suckling.

The best help for getting a calf started is a trouble-free birth, Larson says.

To increase the chance for easy births, Larson suggests utilizing reproductive screening to eliminate heifers with small pelvic openings, providing females with good nutrition and selecting low-birth weight bulls.

Clean calving pastures are also important to newborn calf survival, says Bob Larson, University of Missouri veterinarian.

The first line of defense against disease is to get the newborn calf charged with antibodies provided in the mother's first milk, Larson says.

The next step is to reduce exposure to disease organisms that cause scours and pneumonia in the calving area.

"Sanitation, protection from weather stress and separation from sick calves will greatly decrease the risk of disease and death," Larson says.

Just prior to calving, expectant cows should be moved from the herd pasture to a smaller fresh pasture. The calving pasture should be free of mud and protected from the wind.

At one day of age, the calf and its mother should be moved to a nursery pasture. In the nursery, calves should be grouped by age within two weeks.

Any scouring calves in these groups should be removed immediately to a sick pen away from the healthy calves.

It's good management to calve the heifers ahead of the mature cows, Larson says. Heifers generally have lower colostrum quality than older cows. Also, there are generally fewer disease organisms early in the calving season.

This strategy minimizes disease exposure and maximizes survival chances of calves from first-calf heifers.

Extra attention to sanitation and health early in life can pay off in more calves weaned. Studies show that most calf death loss occurs the first 10 days, he says.