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Colostrum 101

Lindsay Waechter-Mead for Progressive Cattle Published on 25 January 2021

Colostrum management is a topic that comes around each calving season, and cattle producers should understand the importance of getting proper colostrum intake.

However, the number of failures of passive transfer calves in North America ranges widely from 11% to 31%. This article will review key points on colostrum management to ensure calves are set up for success from the beginning of life.

Why is colostrum important?

The placenta is unique in the bovine because it stops maternal and fetal blood supplies from mixing. This separation prevents immunoglobulins from being transferred to the fetus prior to birth. Immunoglobulins are a class of proteins that act as antibodies to protect the immune system from disease. Without the transfer of protective antibodies from the dam to the calf, the calf is at risk for illness or even death. Failure of passive transfer calves have an increased risk of pre-weaning mortality as well as neonatal and pre-weaning morbidity. Failure of passive transfer also has a negative effect on weaning weights and average daily gain (ADG) in the feedyard due to increased incidence of morbidity early in life.

What exactly is colostrum?

Colostrum is the first milk produced by the dam. It contains immunoglobulins, specifically IgG, which is derived from the dam’s blood serum. This process begins as early as five weeks before calving and peaks around one to three days before birth. In addition to IgG, colostrum also contains white blood cells, such as neutrophils and leukocytes, that help further protect the calf from pathogens and the necessary energy and protein required for nutrition.

How much does a newborn calf need?

Calves require at least 100 grams of IgG for immune protection, with more recent studies indicating 150 to 200 grams as ideal. Several factors can influence the quality of colostrum, including dam nutrition and body condition score, age of the dam and breed. Cows usually have higher quality and quantity of colostrum than heifers. Researchers have shown calves born to heifers with a body condition score of 5 to 6 stood faster and had higher levels of IgG than calves born to BCS 3 or 4 heifers. A good rule of thumb for colostrum ingestion is 5% to 6% of calf bodyweight (in quarts).

For example, an 80-pound calf x 5% = 4 quarts of colostrum. This can be broken into two feedings within the first six hours of life.

Timing is everything

The cells lining the small intestine are primed to readily absorb IgG at birth, but the timing window decreases significantly after 12 hours of life. Peak absorption happens in the first four hours post-calving, and complete gut closure is observed at 24 hours of life. Temperature can affect gut absorption as well as metabolic acidosis, which occurs in calves that experienced difficult births. If you assisted in the birth of the calf, it is a good idea to ensure colostrum intake by milking the cow and offering it to the calf. Studies have shown minimal difference in IgG absorption when comparing nipple feeding versus esophageal tube feeding; therefore, either method is correct.

Tubing is usually required in calves born under distress because they lack the vigor to nurse. Colostral immunoglobulins have shown to provide some protection for up to 5 months old. Local protection at the intestinal level may be obtained even after gut closure. For example, supplementing milk with colostrum during rotavirus diarrhea cases may provide a positive mucosal immune response and help to decrease viral shedding.

Not all are created equal

The best source of colostrum for a newborn calf is the mother. If that is not an option, the next option would be a donor cow from the same herd. Usually, the older the cow, the better antibodies she can provide. Healthy cows with a solid vaccine history are ideal. Colostrum can be stored in quart bags in the freezer for up to one year. It is important to remember that heat from the microwave can denature the IgG antibodies. A water bath with temperatures below 140ºF is the best environment to thaw colostrum.

There are several choices for freeze-dried colostrum options. Always remember to read the labels. Colostrum supplements are intended to only supplement a calf that already received some colostrum. Most of the time these contain low levels of IgG and will not provide adequate protection alone. A true colostrum replacement needs to contain at least 100 grams of bovine IgG as well as protein and fat for nutritional requirements. Double check to see how to mix the product to ensure proper absorption. Contact your veterinarian for suggestions on which products are best for your operation.

It takes a village

The saying “it takes a village” does not just pertain to raising human babies. Ask for help. There are several factors at play when it comes to proper colostrum management and setting up an appointment with your local veterinarian before calving season begins will help confirm you are ready. Esophageal tube feeding can be intimidating, so ask for a demonstration when you pick up supplies. With proper communication and planning, you and your veterinarian can form a solid team to ensure your calving season runs smoothly.  end mark

Lindsay Waechter-Mead is a member of the University of Nebraska Beef Team.

Lindsay Waechter-Mead
  • Lindsay Waechter-Mead

  • Clinical Practice Veterinarian
  • Great Plains Veterinary Educational Center
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