We Wouldn't Have a Tube Feeder on the Dairy
"We wouldn't have a tube feeder on our dairy." That was the statement of the owner-operator of the dairy. While not referring to tube feeders as torture instruments the implication was that only those farms with incompetent help would need to impose tube feeders on their newborn calves.
I do not view an esophageal tube feeder that way. With my calves if there was a strong suckle response I started feeding colostrum with a nipple bottle. But, how about when the suckle response is missing as in hard-pull calves? Some of these calves with go hours before they begin to respond. Should I have withheld colostrum from the calf simply because she could not suck?
I consider deliberately withholding colostrum from a newborn calf irresponsible behavior. When newborn cannot suckle it is good animal husbandry to get that life-supporting first feeding into her to provide not only immunity from disease but essential energy and other nutrients. That is where an esophageal tube feeder in competent hands can be a life saver for these calves.
What about calves that will begin to suckle and run out of steam? Our current recommendation is to feed enough colostrum in the first 4 hours (soon is better) to provide 200g of antibodies (IgG). If colostrum is of average quality (50g per liter) it takes roughly 4 quarts to provide this quantity of antibodies. How successful are we in getting calves to voluntarily consume 4 quarts in the first 4 hours?
In 2008 a group from the University of Missouri reported on a colostrum feeding experiment ( K Urday and Others, "Voluntary Colostrum Intake in Holstein Heifer Calves" The Bovine Practitioner, Vol 42, No. 2, pp198-200). Using Holstein calves that were able to stand at 2 hours after birth, they offered 3.2 quarts of colostrum via a nipple bottle for up to 15 minutes. This is what they found:
44% of the calves drank all that was offered, most would have continued to drink more.
25% of the calves drank between 2.1 and 3.2 quarts.
31% of the calves drank less than 2.1 quarts.
Notable is that fact that 16% of the calves consumed less than 1 quart.
My experience feeding colostrum to hundreds of calves supports these percentages. My recall numbers are about 1/2 would knock back two 2-quart bottles just fine. Another 1/4 would finish the first bottle and run out of steam on the second bottle. The last 1/4 just had a tough time finishing the first bottle and about half of them had a hard time drinking at all.
I made a practice to go back to many of these calves as I had time to get them to drink more. Some of the more eager eaters did consume more but the laggards didn't improve their eating behavior. Our dairy's policy was then to use a tube feeder for these "laggards."
I consider it good animal husbandry to use the techniques we have on hand to be sure we get colostrum into these babies. If the farm has the labor to offer 2 or more feedings and can get 4 quarts of colostrum into the calves that way, go for it.
But, time is of the essence here. I do not recommend going beyond 4 hours in achieving the 4-quart colostrum consumption goal. If she has not come close to the 4 quarts by them the dairy needs to have a tube feeder, persons adequately trained to use it properly, and provide the proper amount colostrum.
By the way, in this study there was no observed connection between the size of the calf and the amount of colostrum voluntarily consumed.