Colostrum milk

Golden Rules for Using Dam Colostrum to Prevent Calf Scours

Quality colostrum for prevention of calf scours

Measuring IgG levels of colostrum

It is well established that the drinking of the proper volume of colostrum milk by a newborn calf may be one of the most important factors in preventing calf scours and its causes.  This becomes especially true if the cows received scours vaccinations in the weeks prior to the calf’s birth.  The antibodies the cow has developed naturally and with the help of the vaccine are passed along to the calf through the colostrum.

There are some important considerations that farmers should be aware of when creating a dam/calf management system to ensure proper colostrum consumption according to best practices.

Provide Calves Colostrum within Hours of Birth

Calves are only able to absorb the important antibodies passed along in the colostrum during the first few hours of life.  A golden rule to remember is that a calf should receive antibodies before pathogens get the chance of infecting the calf. These antibodies are the key to a calf developing a strong immune system.  The most optimal transfer of antibodies occurs when the calf drinks about two to three quarts of a cow’s very first milk during the initial two to four hours of life, with a second feeding of colostrum within the first 12 hours.

In these first few hours of a calf’s life there are specialized cells located in the small intestine that can absorb the antibodies contained in the colostrum so it can use them to build the calf’s own autoimmune system.  Within a few hours these specialized cells are gone, and the calf’s ability to use colostrum in building immunity is severely diminished.

Ensuring Calves Consume a Proper Quantity of Colostrum

Since proper consumption of colostrum has proven to be so critical to calf health, many farmers and ranchers elect not to leave it chance.   In fact, when left on their own only about 40% of dairy calves will consume adequate amounts of colostrum from the dam.

In light of this, many owners, particularly of dairy cattle, take steps to ensure a calf drinks at least two to three quarts of colostrum by collecting colostrum from heifers just after birth and then bottle feeding the calf.  If the newborn calf refuses to drink from a bottle then an esophageal tube can be used to deliver the proper volume of colostrum.

Beef cattle cows are believed to be more aggressive mothers, encouraging and stimulating newborn calves to nurse.  Ensuring a newborn beef calf consumes a proper quantity of colostrum is usually less of a concern.

Dam Colostrum Quality Matters

The first milking of a cow after birth provides the highest quality or true colostrum.  A lower quality of colostrum, or transitional milk, will be delivered by the cow for another 2-3 days.  The quality of the colostrum the cow provides is a critical factor in calves developing a healthy immune system.  So it is important that the calf drink the required quantity of quality, early colostrum.

Early colostrum quality does vary between cows, however, even in the same herd.  Older cows, for example, have higher quality colostrum than younger cows, particularly heifers.  Vaccinating cows also improves the colostrum as additional antibodies are passed on to the calf.

While quality colostrum has a much higher concentration of solids, vitamins, and minerals than regular milk, the key component for developing a calf’s immune system is the concentration of immunoglobulins (Ig).  The level of Ig can be measured using a colostrometer, a fairly inexpensive device that can test colostrum’s Ig quality in the field.

If the time and effort is taken to hand deliver colostrum, then it makes sense to ensure that you use quality colostrum with sufficient Ig levels.

Storing Colostrum for Newborn Calf Feeding

Since a typical cow produces enough colostrum for two or three calves, it can be collected, stored, and used as needed.  Colostrum can be refrigerated for a week and still maintain its quality.  The optimum method for long-term storage is freezing in a non-frost free freezer using regular freezer storage bags.  Colostrum can be frozen for up to a year and maintain its full quality if thawed slowly.  Slow thawing is critical – overheating the colostrum reduces the quality and immune benefit to the calf.   A warm water bath is the recommended method.

Collecting and storing colostrum ensures you have a proper supply of quality first milk.  Plus, it allows you to use the colostrum from older, very healthy, and vaccinated cows across the herd.  With simple tests that can verify the quality, you can ensure all calves receive the best colostrum.  And with the focus on quality, the best approach is keep colostrum separated by cow instead of pooling it.  Why dilute the highest quality colostrum with lower quality?  Keep the best separate and use it.

Colostrum Alternatives for the Calf

There is no real alternative for real, quality colostrum.  Using substitutes or replacements should only be done as a last resort.

It has become very clear through research and experience that the importance of providing quality colostrum at the right time and in the right quantity should not be overlooked.  It is the cornerstone to healthy calves, which is the first step to a healthy profit. To learn more about on how to implement a good colostrum management system, go to this page.


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