Lessons learned from SWNY calves' transfer of passive immunity project

Camila Lage, Dairy Management Specialist
Southwest New York Dairy, Livestock and Field Crops Program

March 26, 2024

Lessons learned from SWNY calves' transfer of passive immunity project

By Camila Lage, Dairy Management Specialist

After almost four months of "stabbing" calf necks to collect blood samples to evaluate the transfer of passive immunity in 10 farms across SWNY, it is time to reflect on the lessons learned. First, I would like to thank all the farms that accepted participation in the project. I appreciate the time we spent together, during which I had the opportunity to meet you for the first time and to get to know you and your farm better.

To recap, this project aimed to survey the transfer of passive immunity in calves in our region. In 2020, researchers released new recommendations to measure success when evaluating colostrum programs on farms. Rather than using a cutoff point of > 5.1 g/dL of total protein to determine the success of passive immune transfer on an individual level, Lombard et al. (2020) reccomended that we aim to have at least 40% of calves in a herd with serum IgG concentrations ≥ 6.2 g/dL, and less than 10% with concentrations below 5.1 g/dL. These new goals are driven by research demonstrating that higher serum IgG concentrations than traditionally recommended in dairy calves lead to improved health, increased disease protection, and, ultimately, lower morbidity rates. So, as a long story short, the project's goal was to give farmers a report on how they are doing on colostrum management in perspective to the new "goals."

When we pool the data from all farms, we have an average of 40.3% of sampled calves in the excellent category and just 12.2% of calves failing passive immunity (in the poor category). This is great! This shows how good farms in our region are doing based on the old and new standards and reflects the hard work I know you all do in caring for the animals and always ensuring you are caught up with the latest recommendations.

Figure 1. Percentage of calves in each TPI category when data from all 10 participant farms are pooled together

In this article, I want to discuss some points I learned while doing the project. I would say that I had four major takeaway messages.

  • Awareness is the first step to improvement:  I am a very analytical person and love data. I know not everyone shares this passion with me, but we can all agree that "we can not manage what we do not measure." Once in a while, I "audit" specific areas of my life; this year, it has been my finances. Not surprisingly, I am overspending money. I already imagined that to be true, but learning how much money I spent on coffee still shocked me. Similarly, in farming, data can reveal areas that seem to be working but aren't, guiding us towards necessary changes to enhance our results. Remember that learning about a problem does not necessarily mean we will solve it (I still may be spending more money than I should on lattes). However, knowing something is a problem is the first step to solving it.
  • Data may not tell the whole story, but it rarely lies: Data is one piece of the equation, and in some instances, other factors will affect how the data manifests in real life. Examples in calf management include a farm with a high proportion of calves in the excellent category experiencing high rates of diarrhea and a farm with more failure in passive immunity than what we would like to see that only reports a few sick animals during the pre-weaning phase. Diseases are complex and often multifactorial; therefore, in addition to immunity, environmental challenges and other factors will play a role in morbidity. A good example is a healthy person who travels a lot, getting the flu more times than an immunocompromised person who never leaves home and rarely gets sick. Exposure to the agent will make the person who travels more likely to get sick; however, getting sick is more dangerous to the immunocompromised person. The same happens with calves. The fact that calves are not getting sick does not necessarily mean they are protected. You may have excellent environmental management that prevents them from getting sick. However, your mortality rates can still be high for the calves that do get sick. In both cases, the data can guide you in fine-tuning management. On the one hand, knowing colostrum management doesn't seem to be a big issue, a better understanding of the pathogens affecting the calves and investing in measures that will help control those pathogens are the priority. On the other hand, reviewing colostrum protocols to increase herd immunity will help the farm reduce the chance of mortality of calves that get sick.
  • Record-keeping and data management matters: In this small project, farms that track colostrum data, including feeding schedules, feeders' information, and colostrum quality evaluations, had higher percentages of calves in the good and excellent health categories, regardless of farm size. While collecting and organizing calf data can be challenging, accessing historical data can be invaluable for monitoring progress and identifying issues. For instance, one farm noticed a pattern of calves being classified as fair rather than excellent on certain days. Upon investigating their records, they discovered discrepancies in the performance of different employees. This insight prompted the farm to review protocols with the underperforming employees, ensuring they followed all necessary steps for success with future calves.
  • Organization, protocols, and communication are essential pieces of calf management. The book "Atomic Habits" by James Clear offers valuable insights into human behavior, particularly regarding habit formation. Applying its principles to calf management, three key steps come to mind: making tasks obvious, easy, and attractive. This involves establishing clear protocols for routine tasks (making it obvious), creating an organized and functional calf kitchen to streamline operations (making it easy and attractive), and fostering open communication between teams to ensure coordination and efficiency. For instance, aligning the milking and calf teams on the importance of promptly and cleanly harvesting colostrum is crucial. Delays or improper handling may occur without clear communication, undermining the operation's success. Therefore, maintaining an open line of communication is vital to ensure everyone is on the same page and to achieve desired outcomes.

In summary, colostrum is liquid gold, and following the 5Qs of Colostrum Management when building our colostrum program is essential to ensuring success. Periodically or routinely evaluating herd total protein to audit colostrum programs helps identify unknown bottlenecks, solve issues, and/or motivate the team. Moreover, organization, protocols, and communication are essential pieces of calf management, as they will be directly related to how obvious, easy, and attractive doing the crucial tasks at the farm are and, therefore, if it will get done the way we want it to be. I hope the information collected on the project was as valuable to the participants as it was to me. I for sure learned a lot.

If you think your farm could benefit from a similar analysis, please reach out (cd546@cornell.edu or 607-422-6788), and I would be happy to assist.

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