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The importance of colostrum intake

Aimee Robinson for Progressive Cattle Published on 24 December 2020

Good, bad or otherwise, the impact of colostrum intake – or lack thereof – can follow newborn calves throughout their lifetime.

Colostrum provides some 95% of the antibodies a calf obtains, plus a rich source of minerals, vitamins and energy, protecting newborn calves against infectious agents during the first few months of life. “Colostrum intake plays a vital role in keeping calves alive and helping them develop an immune response to combat diseases,” says Arnold Nagely, DVM, co-founder and CEO of Valley Vet Supply. Nagely practiced food animal veterinary medicine for 27 years before co-founding Valley Vet Supply alongside fellow veterinarian Dr. Ray Shultz.

“Colostrum, which is the first milk produced following birth, or a colostrum replacer if needed, can benefit overall calf health and reduce risks for calfhood diseases, increase average daily gain (ADG) and more throughout a calf’s lifetime. Ensuring they receive high-quality, adequate amounts of colostrum is vital for their immediate survival and for the years to come,” continues Nagely.

Troy Walz, beef systems extension educator with University of Nebraska Extension, works closely alongside cow-calf producers. “Getting our newborn calves off to a good start is key to long-term profits for a producer’s operation. Colostrum plays an important part in that equation,” he says.


The first 24 hours are the most crucial for calves’ survivability. That short time influences a calf’s lifetime of health and productivity. Calves are born agammaglobulinemic, meaning they have almost no antibodies to protect them against disease. Because antibodies are very large molecules, the calf’s intestine is only capable of absorbing this protection immediately following birth, with essentially no absorption possible after the first 24 hours.

A newborn calf’s digestive tract allows antibodies from the dam’s colostrum to pass directly into the blood. The absorbed antibodies protect against systemic invasion by pathogens while antibodies that are not absorbed play an important role in protection against intestinal disease. Walz says calves need about 2 quarts of colostrum (or at least 5% of the calf’s bodyweight) within four hours of birth – ideally within 30 minutes – and 1 gallon within 12 hours.

There can be many reasons a calf may not obtain the colostrum they need, Walz cautions, especially in these calving situations:

  • Poor mothering of the dam, not letting the calf nurse

  • Low-quality colostrum from the dam (heightened chances for undernourished cows and first-calving cows)

  • Poor udder conformation

  • Inclement weather, making calves sluggish to nurse

  • Cases of dystocia

  • Injuries following labor


Not all colostrum is good colostrum. Maternal cow colostrum quality can vary and, if from unhealthy cows, it can contain infectious organisms, infecting the calves. “Some 85 percent of calves dying from infectious disease have received inadequate passive transfer of colostrum,” says Walz. “Due to the importance of colostrum, if its quality is in question, using a colostrometer can help estimate its quality.”

A University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine study explains that “high-quality” colostrum contains at least 50 grams per liter of the antibody immunoglobulin (IgG), contains a low concentration (less than 100,000 colony-forming units per milliliter) of bacterial contaminants and is free of infectious disease agents. As a general rule of thumb, “A yellow color and a thick, creamy consistency are good indications of quality,” says Walz. “Colostrum quality and quantity is usually lower in heifers. Mature cows have had more exposure to disease and will usually have a higher percentile of immunoglobulins and higher quality.”

Colostrum intake has a lifelong impact

In an American Journal of Veterinary Research study conducted at the US Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center, Nebraska, veterinary scientists sought to discover how calf health and productivity correlate with newborn calf passive immune status from colostrum. They collected blood samples 24 hours post-calving from 263 crossbred calves, determining the level of maternal immunity obtained from colostrum. From the blood sample results, newborn calves were labeled as having “inadequate” or “adequate” passive immunity status, and their health and performance were monitored from birth to weaning, and from weaning throughout the feedlot phase.

Calves with “inadequate” passive immunity experienced 5.4 times greater risk of death before weaning, 6.4 times greater risk for sickness during the first 28 days of life – resulting in an average 35-pound loss in weaning weight – and 3.2 times greater risk of sickness before weaning. For those calves marked with “inadequate” passive immunity, they experienced three times greater risk for health challenges in the feedlot, when compared to “adequate” calves.

Colostrum replacer and supplements

“Cow-calf producers know that it is better to have colostrum and not need it than to need it and not have it during calving season,” says Nagely. “Most busy, progressive producers find that keeping a thermos of hot water and a few bags of high-quality colostrum replacer with them during the calving season is the best solution to timely colostrum administration, reliable IgG content, freedom from infectious organisms, ability to immediately return the calf to its mother and assurance that the initial colostrum needs are met.

“In times when multiple calves are coming daily, this proves to be a convenient, profitable approach to success, freeing up the producer for his or her many other responsibilities of the day or night,” observes Nagely.

If you are going to keep natural colostrum, “having colostrum stored from healthy, mature cows from your own ranch can be ideal because you know those cows were exposed to the same pathogens, and they have built up immunity to those pathogens,” says Walz. “If getting colostrum from an outside source, make sure it is from healthy cows and that they are not carrying diseases, like Johne’s disease, salmonella or bovine leukemia.”

“Due to the importance of colostrum to the newborn calf, it is always a good idea to have some alternative sources of colostrum on hand just in case during the calving season,” says Walz. He also recommends producers be familiar with the difference in colostrum replacers, which can essentially replace a cow’s colostrum, versus colostrum supplements, which were developed to supplement the cow’s readily available colostrum should her colostrum be lower in concentration or quantity.

“To obtain the significant long-term benefits of ample early colostrum, more and more producers are giving each calf one bag of colostrum replacer at birth and then turning it to the dam,” says Nagely. “Natural maternal cow colostrum can potentially contain infectious organisms, with many samples tested containing pathogens putting a calf’s health at risk. Replacers can serve as an expedient resource, as collecting or thawing a cow’s colostrum can take up precious time when newborn calves are in their most vulnerable state.”

As we head into the coldest months of the year, it’s all the more important to prioritize adequate colostrum, urges Nagely. “Colostrum will help young calves defend themselves from cold-weather stressors like hypothermia, which the USDA estimates 95,000 calves die from each year. For the best defense against cold weather, it’s beneficial for cattlemen to have colostrum replacers and supplements, calf coats and calf warming huts available if ever needed during calving, especially in the colder months of the year.”  end mark

Aimee Robinson
  • Aimee Robinson

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  • Valley Vet Supply
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