Ask The Vet

Get Orphan Calves Off to a Good Start

Image by Clare Vath

Q: Most years, we end up raising at least one orphan calf. Most have done OK, but some have gotten sick, and we have lost some. Do you have suggestions for managing them?

A: Passive immunity is the key to raising any calf and is even more critical in an orphan calf. Passive immunity in calves comes entirely from the dam's colostrum. In most cases with orphans, you have to feed the calf the colostrum it needs. A newborn calf needs to consume about 8% of its body weight in colostrum within the first 12 hours of life—basically, 2 quarts for an 80- to 100-pound calf. In some cases, this colostrum may be obtained from milking the dam or another high-producing cow that has just calved.

In most beef operations, the colostrum will be frozen, high-quality colostrum from a very good dairy or a commercial colostrum replacer containing at least 100 grams of immunoglobulins. I prefer the colostrum replacer.

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The sooner colostrum is given after birth, the better the absorption. A second bag of colostrum replacer given within the first 12 hours of life helps maximize passive immunity. After 24 hours, colostrum will no longer be absorbed.

An esophageal feeder may be used if the calf is reluctant to nurse. Even the attempt to nurse by the calf will close a groove in its stomach and shunt the colostrum from the rumen into the true stomach, where it is supposed to be.


After this first 12 hours of life is past, maintain the orphan calf on a high-quality milk replacer. It should contain less than 1% crude fiber. Typically, the calf is fed 8% of its body weight divided into equal feedings as close to 12 hours apart as possible. The milk amount stays the same, and after the first week or so of life, hay and a calf starter ration or a total mixed ration is made available. As the calf grows, and energy demands increase, the calf will gradually begin eating the hay and grain. Most dairy calves are weaned once they are consuming 2 pounds of calf starter a day. We have had our best success continuing milk in beef calves for several months.


Sanitation goes hand and hand with passive immunity in preventing disease in orphan calves. They do not have mama looking out for them. They must be kept in a clean, dry environment and protected from wind, mud, manure and extreme temperatures.


If other readers have thoughts on raising orphans, we would love to hear from you.


Q: In an earlier column, you mentioned Texas cattle fever and said it could become a problem in the U.S. I have never heard of this disease. What do I need to know to protect my herd?

A: Texas cattle fever is a disease caused by the protozoa, or single-celled parasites, Babesia bovis or B. bigemina. The disease is carried by Cattle Fever ticks (Rhipicephalus annulatus and R. microplus). This was a devastating disease in the 1800s and early 1900s. The ticks and the disease spread into the Midwest and the South with the great cattle drives of the time.


Babesia destroy red blood cells causing acute anemia. Cattle run a high fever, are depressed and lose weight. In groups of cattle that have never been exposed to the disease, death loss can run up to 90%.


An aggressive, controlled program including dipping cattle in huge vats essentially eradicated the ticks and the disease by 1943. A buffer zone was established along the border with Mexico to prevent reintroduction. Researchers now feel deer are capable of carrying these ticks, which complicates prevention for cattle producers. Our biggest concern now is that the U.S. cattle population has never been exposed to this disease and has no natural immunity. This means effective tick-control programs will almost certainly become much more important in the future.

Please contact your veterinarian for questions pertaining to the health of your herd. Every operation is unique, and the information in this column does not pertain to all situations. This is not intended as medical advice, but is purely for informational purposes.

Write Dr. Ken McMillan at Ask The Vet, 2204 Lakeshore Dr., Suite 415, Birmingham, AL 35209, or email.

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