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Midwest/North: Colostrum: The foundation of healthy calves

Travis Meteer for Progressive Cattle Published on 25 January 2022

Ensuring adequate colostrum intake is one of the most important factors in producing healthy, profitable cattle. Because antibodies do not pass across the placenta, calves must rely on consuming colostrum for early protection against pathogens.

Colostrum contains immunoglobulins that prep the immune system to respond to pathogens and fight disease. Colostrum is also high in energy, fat, vitamins A and D, white blood cells and growth factors.

Not only is it crucial for a calf to receive colostrum, but the timing, quality and quantity is important to ensure success. Ideally, calves should suck within the first two hours of birth. The calf should consume at least 2 quarts of colostrum within the first six hours of life and an additional 2 quarts by 12 hours of birth. The newborn’s gut allows for antibody transfer rapidly and into the bloodstream, but after 12 hours, the bovine gut no longer absorbs adequate antibodies.

Large or lethargic calves can make meeting this timeline challenging without intervention. Calves that do not get up and suck on their own need to be tube fed colostrum. Calves under 75 pounds need 2 to 3 quarts, and calves over 75 pounds need 3 to 4 quarts.

A good indicator of colostrum quality is the cow’s body condition score (BCS). Heifers should score a BCS of 6 and cows a BCS of 5 to 6. Colostrum quality can be tested. Commercially available tests or on-farm tests using a refractometer can aid in determining colostrum quality.

Commercially available colostrum replacements are available. Colostrum replacers and colostrum supplements are not the same. Colostrum replacers will have higher levels of immunoglobulins (usually over 100 IgG) and are best equipped to achieve passive transfer if given on time.

Freezing colostrum to have on hand is an option. Only take colostrum from cows and heifers that lost their calf for non-infectious reasons. The colostrum should be frozen in plastic bags to be thawed easily.

Thawing colostrum must be done in a manner that does not compromise the antibodies. The best way to thaw colostrum is by using warm water at a temperature of 120ºF. Water temperature should never exceed 140ºF. Overheating kills the antibodies, so never boil colostrum to warm it up. Microwaves are hard to predict and hard to measure the temperature the colostrum is being heated to, so it’s easy to accidentally overheat the colostrum. Once you have killed the antibodies, there is no way to go back.

Timely consumption of high-quality colostrum is vital. Failure to get adequate quality or quantity of colostrum can be silently lowering performance, health status and creating a less resilient herd.  end mark

Travis Meteer
  • Travis Meteer

  • Beef Extension Specialist
  • University of Illinois
  • Email Travis Meteer