Colostrum Management

Posted: January 24, 2008

Dr. Arlen Mills, Extension Veterinarian, Capital Region, Pa.
January 4, 2002

It has been said that the most important meal of a calf’s life is the first one. It is essential that a calf get this first meal as it is the colostrum which gives the calf protection from all of the diseases that it will soon be exposed to. A calf which does not get a proper feeding of colostrum has greater than six times the risk of getting sick and over five times the risk of dying than a calf properly fed colostrum.

Colostrum feeding has three components: time , quantity, and quality. Let us examine each of these aspects.

Once a calf is born, a time-clock has been started. The intestine of the calf can only absorb the allimportant antibodies for a maximum of twenty-four hours. To insure maximum absorption, the first feeding needs to be given within six hours of birth. I like to see a second feeding given six to eight hours later. Getting two adequate feedings of good colostrum into the calf within it's first twelve hours of life will pay great dividends. After the first day, the calf is unable to take in the antibodies.

An adequate volume of colostrum is also essential. A calf left to nurse the cow on it's own will rarely get the volume of colostrum it needs to be protected. So it must be hand-fed. Some are advising tubing the calf soon after birth and giving one gallon of colostrum and repeating this twelve hours later. This is enough volume to insure an adequate level of protective antibodies even if the colostrum is of mediocre quality. I have seen some colic and bloating in calves fed a full gallon of colostral milk. I have had good success with a halfgallon of colostrum fed within two hours of birth and a second half-gallon fed six to eight hours later.

Colostral quality is the most difficult of the three factors to handle. We know that cows generally produce colostrum of better quality than that of heifers. The mature cow has been exposed to more of the infections which are on a particular farm. Thus her colostrum should contain antibodies against more of the infectious agents.

Colostrum can become diluted or weakened if a cow is milked or leaks milk before she calves. An instrument called a colostrometer can be used to measure the colostrum quality. It must be used at the right milk temperature to read properly.

The quality of colostrum is also influenced by the dry-cow nutrition. Poor nutrition programs for the dry cows result in poor quality colostrum. Good nutrition enhances colostral quality. Use of appropriate vaccines can also improve the ability of the colostrum to protect the calf against specific diseases. An example of this is the use of E coli, Corona, and Rotavirus vaccine, given to the dry cow to protect her calf from these diseases. The calf is protected by the antibodies which it receives in the colostrum.

Unfortunately, colostrum can be a carrier of several disease agents. Johne's disease, leukosis, and salmonella can be transmitted from cow to calf through the colostrum. Herds with any of these disease problems should never combine or "pool" colostrum. .Instead, colostrum from cows which test negative for these diseases can be frozen and fed to calves of infected cows.

Producers who have their heifers raised off-farm or who purchase cattle need to remember that colostrum from these cows will contain antibodies to diseases on the farm where they were raised, which may be different than diseases on the farm where their calves are born. These calves should be fed good quality frozen colostrum taken from older, healthy resident cows as discussed earlier.

A quick and simple blood test on calves three to five days of age can determine if your calves are being protected as they should be. Ask your veterinarian to check the total protein on several calves periodically to monitor your success in feeding colostrum on time, in the proper quantity, and of the proper quality.