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Importance of passive immunity for calves

published: January 27th 2021
source: Beef Cattle Browsing



Scientists at the U. S. Meat Animal Research Center (MARC), Clay Center, NE, studied effects of passive immunity in calves. Blood samples were collected 24 hours after calving to assess amount of passive maternal immunity obtained from colostrum, the first milk produced at birth. Calves were classified as either “Inadequate” or “Adequate” passive immune status based on that blood sample. Rate of gain and health were monitored from birth to weaning, and after weaning through finishing.

Lowest levels of passive immunity were in calves that were sick or died prior to weaning.  Calves with Inadequate passive immunity had 6.4 times greater risk of sickness during the first 28 days of life, a 3.2 times greater risk of sickness any time prior to weaning, and a 5.4 times greater risk of death before weaning, compared to calves with Adequate passive transfer.  Passive immune status also was indirectly associated with rate of gain through effects on health. Sickness during the first 28 days after birth was associated with a 35-pound lower expected weaning weight.

Based on 24-hour proteins (most of which are antibodies or immunoglobulins) in the blood, risk of sickness in the feedlot was also three times greater for Inadequate compared to Adequate calves.  Respiratory disease in the feedlot resulted in 0.09 lb. lower expected average daily gain. Thus, passive immunity obtained from colostrum was an important factor in health both pre- and post-weaning and indirectly influenced rate of gain during both periods. 

Some factors to consider in passive immunity are:

- Calves born to first-calf two-year-old heifers can be more likely to have lower passive immunity. Breeding heifers to known or documented calving-ease bulls should reduce difficult births and sluggishness in calves at birth. Such calves can be reluctant or unable to nurse as soon as desirable and thus do not receive adequate colostrum.   

- Cow calf producers can benefit themselves and any future owners by properly growing replacement heifers, providing a good health program for cows and heifers, and providing natural or commercial colostrum products to calves that do not receive it in adequate quantities.

Most transfer of antibodies from colostrum to the calf occurs in the first 6 hours after birth. The first day sets the stage from there on!  

Source: Wittum and Perino. 1995. Amer. Jour. Of Vet. Research. 56:1149. Summarized from Oklahoma State Univ. Cow-Calf Corner Newsletter, Jan. 4, 2021, Dr. Glenn Selk


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