Good Colostrum: A Solid Foundation for Herd Health and Profits
Most dairy operations routinely administer colostrum to newborn calves, but many may not understand why this practice goes beyond being a good idea. The passive immunity it provides to the calf’s underdeveloped immune system is crucial to more than just its growth and productivity—it may mean the difference between life and death.
Did you know that 31 percent of all dairy heifer mortality during the first 21 days of life could be prevented by improved colostrum management?1
That’s just one of the benefits of colostrum revealed in several research studies over the past 20 years, according to Alfonso Lago, DVM, DABVP-Dairy, Ph.D., Manager of Technical Services for APC, Inc., which produces high-quality functional proteins for feed and industrial use. The other benefits include decreased risk of respiratory disease and diarrhea, along with more rapid growth, earlier calving and higher milk production at first lactation.
The reason colostrum is so important is that it provides crucial antibodies to the calf at a point in its development when it cannot produce them on its own.
“Early in life, the calf ’s resistance to disease depends on what s/he gets from colostrum,” Lago explained. “That’s why we call it passive immunity, because it is given to the calf. They cannot actively develop immunity for themselves for the first few weeks.”
Colostrum provides crucial antibodies; deliver it quickly.
Colostrum, the first milking after birth, is essentially concentrated milk plus antibodies that come from the cow’s blood. The following few milkings produce what is called transitional milk; it still contains some antibodies, but fewer than in the first milking, and the presence of these antibodies decreases gradually over time.
Some producers administer a second and even third feeding of colostrum several hours after the first, Lago said, but the first administration is what is really crucial. “Give it ASAP, less than four hours after birth. The general rule is one gallon.”
Time is of the essence because newborn calves have what they call an “open gut,” which allows the absorption of large molecules and particles, including immunoglobulin G, (IgG), the predominant antibody in colostrum … and the one used to assess colostrum quality.
However, a rapid and progressive decrease in the gut’s ability to absorb IgG occurs during the 24 hours following birth. A significant decrease in absorption occurs in the first 30-60 minutes; and after nine hours, 50 percent of the gut’s absorption capability is gone.
“So, whatever goes into the gut first is absorbed,” Lago explained. “If colostrum goes first, the calf is protected. If pathogens from the environment go first, the calf gets sick. That’s why it’s important to administer the colostrum quickly.”
The calf does not have to be with its mother to receive the colostrum. In fact, Lago recommends that calves be removed from their mothers within an hour, or as soon as the cow licks the calf. That’s true for two reasons: (1) because it’s easier to measure the amount and timing of colostrum calves receive if given via bottle or esophageal feeder; and (2) because calves that stay with their mothers for more than a few hours tend to get sicker. Experts surmise this is because these calves are exposed to more manure—and more bacteria.
“In order for a calf to be healthy, it must be in a clean environment, as well as have internal resistance to disease,” he said. “It’s like when you go to war, the chance of winning is improved if you are strong enough to defend yourself and if your enemy isn’t attacking you too much.”
Colostrum quality decreases rapidly after the cow gives birth. So, the other thing that should occur immediately is milking the cow. Colostrum does not have to belong to the calf ’s mother, though, to be effective.
“Some producers feed from that calf ’s mom,” Lago stated. “Others milk the cows immediately after birth and store the colostrum from other cows. They milk the cow when they can (ASAP), and they feed the calf colostrum they have in storage from other cows. Colostrum will keep two to three days when refrigerated.”
Lago elaborated that colostrum can also be frozen for up to six months, then thawed, but he cautioned that care must be taken that the colostrum is not overheated in the thawing process.“Many farmers use hot water to thaw colostrum, but if the water is too hot, it can damage the antibodies in colostrum, which will decrease its effectiveness.”
The benefits are only as good as the quality.
But not all colostrum is created equal. That’s because the level of antibodies can vary significantly from cow to cow.
So, in addition to milking soon after birth to get the greatest colostrum quality, it’s also important to know that the colostrum has an adequate concentration of IgG … because, as Lago puts it, “immunity = resistance.”
There are several ways to test colostrum, he offered. Some involve high costs and lengthy waits for results, so they are not feasible for use on the farm. A colostrometer, which measures the gravity density of the colostrum, can be useful; however, its results are reliable only when it says that it is low quality colostrum but not when it says that it is high quality colostrum, Lago said. Another device, called a refractometer (brix-refractometer), measures total solids, which correlate with IgG concentration.
Although IgG levels vary widely, depending on many factors, Lago recommends maintaining a concentration of at least 50 mg/ml.
The other key ingredient in colostrum quality is cleanliness. Experts believe that bacteria in colostrum can inhibit the transfer of passive immunity. And, of course, it can also make the calf sick, causing such problems as E. coli, Salmonella, Mycoplasma and Johne’s disease. So, it’s important to make sure that all colostrum is sanitized and free from disease.
To make sure this is the case, Lago suggests producers take the following precautions:
- Use proper udder hygiene during collection;
- Sanitize collection, storage and feeding equipment;
- Do not pool fresh colostrum;
- Refrigerate or freeze surplus colostrum quickly after collection;
- Do not store colostrum for too long.
When colostrum isn’t feasible.
Sometimes the use of colostrum simply isn’t practical, for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the colostrum is of low quality, there may be an inadequate supply, or there may be issues with disease or sanitation.
In cases when the calf has ingested little or no colostrum, colostrum replacers (products with at least 100 grams of IgG per dose) can fill the void. AgriLabs’ Colostrx® 130, for example, is a complete colostrum replacer containing 130 grams of bovine globulin proteins from the same source that enriches natural colostrum milk. It also contains energy, protein, vitamins and minerals designed to replace the nutrients in maternal colostrum. Such products can be used to replace colostrum when the cow is sick or dies, or when the calf doesn’t stand up so it can suckle.
Colostrum supplements (products with less than 100 grams of IgG per dose), such as Colostrx® Plus can be used in situations when the calf has not ingested enough colostrum. In these cases, total replacement is not needed, but immunity may need to be boosted, such as when the calf is born to a heifer, or the calf is thin or a twin.
Whatever the source, though, the antibodies and nutrients provided by colostrum and colostrum replacers are essential elements for calves to develop the disease resistance they need to survive and thrive. Failure to accomplish this passive transfer of immunity puts calves at much greater risk for impaired health, growth and future milk production.
How Effective Colostrum Management Can Help Your Herd
- Reduces mortality—by as much as 31 percent
- Lower incidence of diarrhea
- Less respiratory disease
- Lower treatment costs
- Better feed efficiency
- Faster growth
- Quicker first calving
- Higher production in first lactation
Tips On Using Colostrum
- Milk the cow immediately after birth to assure high IgG levels
- Give calves first milking colostrum immediately after birth
- Subsequent administration of colostrum from second and third milkings is optional; this colostrum should not be used at first feeding
- Remove the calf from its mother soon after birth
- Colostrum can come from cows other than the calf ’s mother
- Make sure colostrum comes from healthy cows
- Be certain colostrum is collected, stored and administered using sound sanitary practices
1. Robison, 1988, Selim et al., 1995; Wells, 1996