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An alternative approach to colostrum storage

Jim Quigley Published on 27 April 2010

Every dairy producer knows the importance of feeding enough high-quality colostrum to newborn dairy calves. However, getting the right amount of clean colostrum into the calf as early as possible can be a real challenge. Limited labor resources, less-than-optimal facilities or lack of training often make the tasks of managing newborns one of the lower priorities on the dairy farm.

This is particularly true when newborns are bull calves. However, the long-term implications of poor colostrum management are profound. Calves that receive adequate passive immunity are healthier, have less scours, grow faster and make more milk when they enter the herd compared to calves that receive inadequate passive immunity. It’s important to the calf to do colostrum “right.”

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Recent research points out the problem of bacterial contamination in maternal colostrum. Several studies have shown that much of the colostrum fed to newborn calves contains large numbers of bacteria and many potential pathogens. Much of the problem of bacterial contamination is associated with storing and handling.

Stewart and coworkers published an article in the 2005 issue of the Journal of Dairy Science that evaluated changes in bacterial counts when colostrum was stored at ambient temperature or in the refrigerator for 24, 48 or 96 hours. Colostrum collected from the udder was very clean – with minimal total plate count (TPC) or coliforms (Table 1). Total plate counts are an indication of the total number of bacteria in a sample, whereas coliforms are primarily associated with fecal contamination. When placed into an esophageal tube feeder or bucket, TPC and coliform counts increased. It’s common that equipment used to handle colostrum are not adequately cleaned and, consequently, colostrum becomes contaminated from equipment.

Placing colostrum in the refrigerator slowed, but did not stop, bacterial growth. By 24 hours, TPC increased to over 500,000 cfu/ml. Most experts agree that colostrum should have TPC less than 100,000 cfu/ml; thus, in this experiment, even storing colostrum in the refrigerator for one day allowed the colostrum to become unacceptably contaminated.

Storing colostrum for two or four days still allowed a gradual increase in TPC and coliform counts. Coliforms grew more markedly from 48 to 96 hours.

Storing colostrum at room temperature is a bad idea under any condition. As can be seen from Table 1, colostrum TPC exceeded 18 million by 24 hours. Clearly, colostrum is an excellent growth medium for spoilage bacteria. By 48 hours, bacteria had grown to the point at which acids were beginning to build up in the colostrum, thereby killing off acid- sensitive bacteria; this is likely why TPC declined from 18 million to 4 million by 48 hours.

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Unfortunately, poor methods of colostrum storage are common on many dairy farms. Frozen colostrum must be thawed prior to feeding, which takes time and gives the calf the chance to find and swallow contaminated bedding or lick manure from the cow, thereby becoming infected. Most calves will stand within one hour of birth, so it’s essential that colostrum be ready to feed as soon as the calf can stand. Removing the calf from the maternity pen will reduce the risk of infection, also. Remember, whatever reaches the intestine first – colostrum or bacteria – often determines whether calves live or die.

Developments in manufacturing technologies have allowed companies to develop effective colostrum replacers and supplements that provide a ready supply of absorbable IgG. Colostrum replacers are convenient, can be stored at room temperature, and can be quickly mixed when needed. Calves can be fed within a few minutes when using a colostrum replacer product.

Their ease and efficacy makes colostrum replacers a good alternative to keeping a colostrum bank on the farm. Producers should consider keeping a supply of colostrum replacer on hand. Rather than trying to manage the colostrum bank – refrigerating, freezing, storing, rotating, thawing, etc. – it may be more efficient in terms of labor and calf health to utilize colostrum replacers when an alternative source of colostrum is needed. Excess colostrum or colostrum that is low in IgG can be fed to calves older than one day of age. This excess or low IgG colostrum is still a great supply of IgG, IgM and IgA to coat the intestine of older calves, supporting immunity and boosting resistance to scours. It can be fed for as long as the supply lasts.

Mix excess colostrum into waste milk or milk replacer at the rate to provide four to five grams of IgG per calf per day. If we assume that excess colostrum contains 25 grams of IgG per liter, then you would want to add 200 milliliters or about six to seven ounces of colostrum per calf every day. If you pasteurize waste milk, many or most of the colostral antibodies will be destroyed by pasteurization, depending on the type of pasteurization used. Batch pasteurization at 60°C (140°F) for 60 minutes is least destructive to IgG.

The choice of colostrum product depends on their availability, cost, mass of IgG needed by the calf and ease of mixing. Calves should receive at least 125 grams of IgG in the first feeding and at least 150 grams of IgG in the first 24 hours. Colostrum replacers are a viable alternative to colostrum banks and should be considered by producers to improve overall neonatal management. PD

References omitted due to space but are available upon request by sending an email to .

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Jim Quigley
  • Jim Quigley

  • Vice President & Director of Calf Operations
  • APC Inc.
  • Email Jim Quigley

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