by Dr. Sheila McGuirk School of Veterinary Medicine, University of Wisconsin An article a while back about giving probiotics to new calves said to not give it to them until they have had their first 24 hours of colostrum. We give our new calves a probiotic, and the instructions say to give it right at birth. What should we do? K.K., Canada The concept of feeding probiotics from birth to weaning is based on the premise that normal, diverse populations of bacteria are essential to the intestinal immune system of the calf. The growth of normal, intestinal bacteria may be impaired under conditions of stress, competition from other disease-causing bacteria to which calves are exposed, or antibiotics included in feed or administered to sick calves. Your calves may not be as healthy or grow as well when normal intestinal bacterial populations are disturbed. Probiotics are relatively inexpensive and have little to no potential to do any harm. They may help maintain normal intestinal bacterial populations when fed regularly and could, therefore, improve performance and health in calves. With many supplements, products, and treatments designed to deal with calf health concerns, the expectations may surpass the actual results. Feeding probiotics will not make up for poor management, an environment with a heavy exposure to disease-producing organisms, or a calf made more susceptible to disease by not getting enough colostrum or other nutrition or one suffering from vaccination overload. Your probiotic product should provide an adequate dose of living bacteria from a genus like Lactobacillus that normally is found in the intestine of calves. While the probiotic label will tell what bacterial organisms are included in the product, it will not provide any guarantee what percent of the bacterial population are alive, how the organisms survive in milk, in medicated milk replacer, or during transit through the stomach (abomasum) of the calf. Choose a probiotic product from a reputable company that has done research in calves to back up any health or performance claims. Storage and handling of the probiotic product is critical, especially after it is opened. If you have antibiotics in the milk or milk replacer fed to your calves, do not feed the probiotic in that liquid. If a calf is being treated with antibiotics, don't use a probiotic until the treatment protocol is finished. We do not want you to feed probiotics in the newborn calf's colostrum. There is good evidence that antibodies in colostrum with heavy bacterial contamination (more than 100,000 cfu/ml) are not as well absorbed as the antibodies in clean colostrum. Probiotics do not contain "bad" bacteria, but the viable bacteria in a good product do contribute to the standard plate count in colostrum. Therefore, avoid providing them probiotics until colostrum feeding is finished.
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