Thornsberry details common calf procedures

2012-07-05T08:00:00Z Thornsberry details common calf proceduresBY PEGGY COFFEEN, DAIRY/LIVESTOCK EDITOR Agri-View

During the Vita Plus Calf Summit held recently in Green Bay, Dr. Max Thornsberry, DVM, with Milk Specialties Global Animal Nutrition’s research and technical team, gave a detailed overview of common calf procedures, highlighting debudding as his preferred dehorning method and explaining the importance of high-quality colostrum for newborn calves, as well as the how-to’s of tube feeding this vital, antibody-rich milk.


When it comes to removing horns on young calves, Thornsberry prefers debudding. “It eliminates all the work, all the bleeding, all the pain, all the stress associated with dehorning,” he explained, because debudding is not branding a circle around the horn, it is cauterizing the horn. “Calves basically don’t feel it because it’s a third degree burn. It’s not like branding where you are branding the skin. You are actually cutting it,” he added.

The debudder is a very sharp-edged tool that requires a propane cartridge, similar to those that are available for camping. The unit itself runs around $300, while the propane cartridges are fairly inexpensive. Although some debudders on the market use butane, he warns against them because butane does not get hot enough to make the clean cut necessary for proper dehorning. He suggested a debudder with a 1-inch tip for Holstein calves, while units with a smaller tip may be more desirable for Jersey calves and other smaller breeds.

Debudding, ideally, should be done when the calf is around 3 weeks old, or when the horn nubbin is visible. For some calves, this may take longer than three weeks. Thornsberry recommended straddling the calf right in its pen, using your legs as a head catch to restrain the animal for this quick procedure. Find the nubbin, then apply slight pressure as you rotate the debudder around for about 3 seconds. “You want to cut all the way down, all the way around,” he instructed. This cauterizes and eliminates the two parts of the horn nubbin: the fingernail-like portion and the bone protrusion. “There is no blood, no seepage. You don’t touch it,” he said, “It heals from the bottom up, and in a few weeks it will pop off.

While a local anesthetic can be used to minimize pain, Thornsberry cautioned that sometimes administering it can cause more stress and discomfort than the actual debudding procedure itself. “If you want to use lidocaine, you can, but I think you cause more pain with the lidocaine than you do with the dehorner because you are only going to have that calf for 6 seconds,” he said.


“Colostrum is God’s gift to the baby calf – it’s essential for survival. Calves that don’t get colostrum have a 72 percent more chance of death in the first two weeks of life,” Thornsberry stated. “It’s your responsibility to get the colostrum in.”

“I cannot tell you enough about colostrum provision,” said Thornsberry. “We have discovered that there are 400 to 500 things in colostrum besides antibodies. Things that are responsible for maturing the immune system, developing epithelial tissue in the intestinal tract, things that program the function of the liver and the pancreas… it is a science in and of itself.”

He added, “We’ve been selecting dairy cows for milk production now for about 5,000 years. The issue with the dairy animal is that we have bred away survival instinct.” And part of that instinct was the ability for the calf to get up and nurse after birth. If cows calved in a natural environment, calves that were not strong enough to nurse colostrum would not survive. Now, it becomes incumbent upon us to make sure that the calf gets colostrum and good quality colostrum at that.

“The calf has the ability to absorb every antibody that the mother has in her blood stream through the intestinal tract if it’s in there quick enough,” he said. The calf needs at least 200 grams of antibodies, and the average cow produces colostrum with 50 to 80 grams of antibodies per quart. That means we should strive to feed the calf 4 quarts, Thornsberry explained. While best if fed all in one feeding and within one hour of birth, colostrum should be fed no later than six hours after birth. “We know you can get better absorption if you do it all at the same time, but if that is not an option, do your best to get it in them,” he noted.


For calves that won’t eat tube feeding may be an option. However, Thornsberry warns, there are only two things that should be tubed: colostrum and electrolytes. Never tube milk or milk replacer, he said.

“When you tube a calf, the esophageal groove, which is a muscle tube in the opening of the esophagus, shuts everything into the abomasum, the fourth stomach of the calf,” he explained. “If we give something besides colostrum or electrolytes, it goes into the rumen of the calf. Then, it sits there and ferments, causing the calf to bloat.” That is why he suggested making calves drink milk, or tube electrolytes until they are able to drink milk.

Colostrum, on the other hand, is a different story. The newborn calf’s stomach is sterile at the time you give colostrum, and the rumen is only as big as your fist. What goes into the rumen is going to empty out into the abomasum within a few hours anyway, he said.

Before you begin tubing, lubricate the tube. Thornsberry likes to use butter as a lubricant. Again, use your legs as a head catch if the calf is standing. If the calf cannot stand, at least set it upright. Never tube a calf laying on its side. He also advised using a flexible feeding tube with a knob on the end, which allows it to more easily pass through the esophagus.

Because calves have sharp teeth on their front jaw, he advised against putting the tube straight in. Instead, find the section between the last front tooth and first jaw tooth. Stick your fingers in that open spot, tickle the top of mouth and start the tube down the other side where there are no teeth, he shared. The esophagus is right over the top of the windpipe, but it is going to go down the left side of his neck. The calf will swallow, and you will feel the tube go down by your leg. “Push all way up to corner of mouth, raise up and let [the liquid] run in,” Thornsberry said.

As the colostrum or electrolytes run from the bottle into the calf, the flow may stop. When this happens, equalize the pressure between the jug and intestinal tract by loosening up the jug a little bit. The tendency may be to squeeze the jug, but that will not help. He thinks of it like a gas can that needs an additional hole to relieve pressure and allow flow.

The tubing process should take about three to five minute for 2 quarts of fluids. When finished, take it out, flush with hot water, then Clorox to disinfect. If this is done properly, the calf should not have bitten the tube. However, if this did occur, use fine sand paper to smooth out the rough spots that could cause harm to the throat of the next calf the tube is used on.

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