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A practical guide to colostrum management

Drew A. Vermeire for Progressive Dairyman Published on 13 September 2018
newborn dairy calf

When it comes to colostrum, its value to the calf cannot be overstated. Most dairymen are well aware that colostrum contains high levels of immunoglobulins that protect calves against diseases present on the farm.

In the last 30 years, an abundance of other bioactive compounds in colostrum that improve growth and well-being have been well-documented. Most dairymen also understand that vaccinating their cows six to nine weeks before calving and giving a booster three to six weeks before calving is an effective way to protect calves from calfhood diseases including rotavirus, coronavirus, Clostridium perfringens type C and K99 E. coli.

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It is important to note while the cow is protected through the vaccine, the calf only benefits from it if it consumes colostrum from a vaccinated cow in a timely manner. This means the calf must consume at least 10 percent of its bodyweight of high-quality colostrum within two hours of birth. In fact, feeding newborn calves poor-quality colostrum with high bacteria counts and low immunoglobulin levels is a recipe for sick calves.

Not every dairy

Unfortunately, for some dairies, successfully collecting and feeding high-quality colostrum on time is not feasible. If this is the case, the dairy is better off spending $35 or more for a dose of colostrum replacer containing at least 150 grams of immunoglobulins and feeding that to the calf instead of collecting and feeding their own colostrum.

After a few months with colostrum replacer, calf health and performance should have improved. While continuing with the colostrum replacer is a viable option for good calf health, developing and executing a plan to properly harvest, store and feed their own colostrum is typically the most cost-effective option for dairies.

Not every cow

While feeding colostrum is the best way to protect calves from diseases to which they will be exposed, not every cow produces colostrum that is high quality and disease-free. Colostrum from cows that have leaked milk, have mastitis or have a “positive” Johne’s disease ELISA test should not be fed to calves. Cows should have been dry for at least 45 days prior to calving and have been in the transition group for a minimum of 14 days. In addition, consult with the herd veterinarian to develop an appropriate vaccination program for your dairy.

Tune-up your protocol

Harvest colostrum within two hours of calving, and always milk fresh cows before sick or treated cows using the same cow preparation protocols used in the milking parlor. Always pay particular attention to sanitation.

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High-quality, first-milking colostrum has a solids content of 24 percent, nearly twice the solids content of saleable milk, which is 12.5 percent. Solids content progressively decreases to normal milk level over several days (transition milk). The best colostrum is “thicker” than poor-quality colostrum because it has a higher solids content and consequently more nutrition, immunoglobulins and other beneficial components for the calf.

Use a refractometer or colostrometer to test colostrum quality (greater than 50 grams per liter) and feed or properly store within 30 minutes of collection. Pour colostrum into milk bottles, plastic food storage bags or other clean containers with cow ID and date of collection clearly marked. There are several single-use colostrum storage systems on the market that make this process very easy and effective. Do not put hot colostrum into a refrigerator because it takes more than eight hours to cool in a refrigerator, giving bacteria ample time to grow. Instead, put the storage container into ice water and rapidly cool it, and then put chilled colostrum in the refrigerator or freezer. Potassium sorbate can be added to colostrum to extend shelf life, but colostrum should be fed or frozen within seven days or discarded.

Feed colostrum to every calf

Both bulls and heifers need colostrum for health and well-being. Sending bull calves to a calf ranch or sale barn without colostrum puts the calves and your reputation at risk. Feed colostrum equal to 10 percent of bodyweight within the first two hours of life and an additional 5 percent of bodyweight before 12 hours of life. For a 90-pound calf, this is equal to 2 quarts within 30 minutes of birth, another 2 quarts an hour later and an additional 2 quarts within the next 10 hours. Collect and test serum protein using a refractometer on day two.

Well-managed farms have 90 percent or more calves with serum total protein equal to or greater than 5.2 grams per deciliter. If less than 80 percent of calves have serum protein less than 5 grams per deciliter, it’s time for a tune-up. Review collection and feeding practices, and make adjustments as needed.

Clean up after

Rinse all colostrum feeding and collection equipment with warm water (80 to 110oF) to remove dirt and milk residues. Use a thermometer to adjust temperature every time. Next, clean using a mixture of chlorinated alkaline soap and hot water (165oF). Wear gloves and scrub all surfaces. Special brushes are available to clean nipples and esophageal feeders. Choline products have short shelf lives, so it is better to buy small quantities frequently instead of large quantities infrequently. Use a thermometer to be sure that the temperature is at 165oF because suspended milk solids can redeposit on equipment if the wash water temperature falls below 120oF. Finally, rinse equipment with an acid-sanitizing solution per the manufacturer’s directions and allow to completely dry. Rub your thumb across some surfaces to see if they are “squeaky clean” (very good) or slimy (very bad). Use the same cleaning products as are used in the milk house to clean milking equipment and follow this cleaning ritual every time calves are fed.

Improved colostrum management reaps big rewards in improved calf health, lower medication costs, lower death loss and an overall improvement in calf well-being and employee morale.  end mark

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Drew A. Vermeire

PHOTO: Well-managed farms have 90 percent or more calves with serum total protein equal to or greater than 5.2 grams per deciliter. If less than 80 percent of calves have serum protein less than 5 grams per deciliter, it’s time for a tune-up. Review collection and feeding practices, and make adjustments as needed. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

The 5 Q’s of colostrum still apply

  • Feed quality colostrum (greater than 50 grams per liter)

  • Proper quantity (10 percent bodyweight plus 5 percent bodyweight)

  • Feed quickly (within two hours of birth, plus 10 hours later)

  • Equipment “sQueaky” clean (minimize bacterial contamination)

  • Quantify passive transfer (the goal is 90 percent of calves with serum total protein of greater than 5.2 grams per deciliter)

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