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Avoid dialing 911 with ‘Feeding Colostrum 101’

Published on 22 August 2014

Every stage of an animal’s life matters in order for her to reach her full potential as a cow. Newborn calves rely on the farmer to assist them in building their immune system. As a calf’s caretaker, it is important to take a course in “Feeding Colostrum 101” to avoid having to “dial 911” on your calf’s health.

Lesson 1



A newborn calf is very unique because it is born without a functioning immune system. Unlike human pregnancies, when a cow is carrying a calf, antibodies are unable to cross the placental wall; therefore, they do not transfer from the dam to the fetus.

Antibodies make up a calf’s immune system, and without these magical blood proteins, called immunoglobulins, it cannot fight off diseases and infections.

Where does a calf obtain these antibodies from? Colostrum is the marker needed to create an immune system for a newborn calf. Not only does it keep calves healthy, but it also provides essential nutrients to increase a calf’s metabolism and fuel its digestive activity.

Lesson 2

Colostrum must be fed to a calf as soon as possible in order for the immunoglobulins to pass immediately to the calf’s bloodstream without being digested. This type of protection is known as passive immunity and is only available to a calf for the first 24 hours of its life.


Why feed colostrum right away? Passive immunity acts as a calf’s immune system for up to eight weeks, until its own immune system is developed. At this time, the calf is at an enormous risk for illness and must be provided with colostrum to help prevent bacterial infection.

During this short timeframe, a calf’s intestine contains holes that allow it to absorb large molecules; in a short amount of time, these holes become smaller and smaller. The smaller these holes, the less likely a calf will be able to absorb the antibodies it needs to create an immune system.

Timely feeding is also important because not only can immunoglobulins enter these large holes, but bacteria can as well. As soon as a calf is born, it is prone to many different sources of bacteria in its environment, especially because it does not have an immune system yet.

If bacteria reach the holes before the immunoglobulins, the calf is at a huge risk for death. For example, E. coli is a pathogenic bacteria that can cause scouring in calves. If it beats the immunoglobulins to the gut, it will attach to the intestinal walls and inhibit both the attachment and absorption of immunoglobulins.

If this happens, the calf will not be able to have a healthy, fully functional immune system. Feeding colostrum as soon as possible decreases the chances of the bacteria entering the calf’s bloodstream and prevents the caretaker from having to call 911.

Lesson 3

A newborn calf should be fed 2 to 3 quarts of colostrum within one hour after birth and an additional 2 to 3 quarts within eight hours after birth. If preferred, it is acceptable to feed 4 quarts in one feeding within one hour after birth. The colostrum should be fed by hand in a bottle.


If the calf refuses to drink 2 to 3 quarts of colostrum, an esophageal tube feeder should be used. However, it is important to keep in mind that this type of feeder can cause damage to a calf’s throat, and if placed incorrectly in its throat, can be the cause for a 911 call, or worse, death.

Lesson 4

Without high-quality colostrum, a calf is not only put at risk for diseases throughout its life but has a greater potential of lost milk production down the road. Not just any colostrum should be fed. Colostrum should contain a proper amount of immunoglobulins in order to create a vigorous immune system for the calf that will last a lifetime.

Immunoglobulin G (IgG) makes up 80 to 85 percent of the immunoglobulins in colostrum, while immunoglobulin A (IgA) makes up 8 to 10 percent and immunoglobulin M (IgM) makes up 5 to 12 percent of the immunoglobulins in colostrum.

What makes good colostrum? The immunoglobulin concentration and the absence of bacteria determine the quality of colostrum. Good colostrum should appear thick and creamy, as well as free of contaminants such as blood and bacteria.

Moreover, the amount of immunoglobulins is a huge factor to feeding high-quality colostrum. The IgG concentration is the most important because it survives the longest in calves’ bloodstreams. High-quality colostrum should contain 50 grams of IgG per liter.

How should the quality of colostrum be measured? The immunoglobulin concentration can be measured easily on-farm with a colostrometer. The colostrometer should be placed into colostrum cooled to room temperature of 72ºF. This temperature is more important than many people realize.

If the milk is below 72ºF, the colostrometer will overestimate the amount of IgG concentration, and if it is above this temperature, it will underestimate the amount of IgGs in the colostrum. Correctly measuring the immunoglobulins of colostrum is another step to avoid calling 911.

What if the colostrum quality from the dam does not meet high-quality standards? Although nothing beats the gold standard of good-quality colostrum directly from the calf’s mother, there are other options. If high-quality colostrum is not available, colostrum supplements and replacers are recommended.

Colostrum supplements are designed to be added to colostrum to help increase the serum IgG blood levels in calves, and colostrum replacers have even more immunoglobulins than supplements. A replacer also provides more immunoglobulins than a moderate-quality to poor-quality colostrum from a cow. It has been proven through research that calves fed colostrum replacer can succeed just as well as calves fed high-quality colostrum from the dam.

Lesson 5

Storing frozen colostrum is another option for colostrum. However, it should not be stored for longer than a year and should be warmed up properly so as to not ruin the IgG levels and reproduce bacteria.

The colostrum should be stored in 1-quart or 2-quart bottles, and when needing to be thawed, placed in warm water less than 120ºF. It is also important to pour off the liquid periodically from the colostrum as it thaws. This liquid should then be placed directly in a refrigerator.

Fresh colostrum should not be allowed to sit at room temperature longer than a half-hour to prevent bacterial growth. As soon as the colostrum reaches room temperature, the bacteria amount doubles every 20 minutes. These little tasks may seem excessive, but when it comes to colostrum and creating an immune system for calves, there is no task too cautious.

Lesson 6

Reduce exposure to pathogens
Just as the quality and timeliness of the colostrum are important to avoid the 911 call, management factors involved in feeding colostrum are huge and many times overlooked.

Colostrum is a sensitive source of feed, and if proper management protocols on the farm are not carried out, a calf is put at a great risk for disease and death. All of the equipment used should be properly cleaned and sanitized.

In addition, a calf should be housed in a clean pen or hutch with an adequate amount of bedding. It is also important to separate the calf from the mother as soon as the mother has finished stimulating the calf in order to reduce certain pathogens the calf could come in contact with.

There are other factors to keep in mind that determine the quality of the colostrum in relation to the dam itself:

  • Dry cows should be vaccinated against E. coli, clostridium, coronaviruses and rotaviruses.
  • Older cows are more likely to have colostrum with more immunoglobulins because they have been subject to more pathogens.
  • If a cow has a large volume of colostrum, then it is more likely to be diluted, decreasing the concentration of antibodies.
  • The dry period should be more than four weeks long, and cows should be fed enough protein and energy to avoid lower-quality colostrum.
  • If a cow has been leaking milk or was milked prior to calving, her immunoglobulin level of colostrum fed to the calf will be reduced.

By carrying out all of the tasks necessary and using the proper protocols to develop a calf’s immune system, farmers will be able to keep their calves healthy, resulting in healthier heifers and cows. Not only does a vigorous immune system diminish medicine and veterinarian costs, but it also allows for an animal to meet its full potential, making more milk and improving a farmer’s bottom line.

Avoid dialing 911 by remembering these tips from “Feeding Colostrum 101:”

  • Calves rely on the farmer to build their immune system for them.
  • Feed newborn calves 4 quarts of colostrum within one hour after birth. The sooner, the better.
  • Measure fresh colostrum with a colostrometer.
  • High-quality colostrum should contain at least 50 grams of IgG per liter.
  • Thaw frozen colostrum at less than 120ºF and refrigerate the liquid as it is thawing.
  • Store unused, high-quality colostrum in a fridge no longer than 24 hours and freeze no longer than a year.
  • Properly clean and sanitize all of the equipment a calf comes in contact with.
  • Provide fresh and adequate bedding immediately after birth.
  • A proper dry cow program will help cows produce high-quality colostrum.
  • If the dam’s colostrum is not suitable, use previously frozen high-quality colostrum or a colostrum replacer.

Remember, every age matters, and if a farmer can avoid calling 911 early in an animal’s life, then calves can experience substantial growth, tremendous development and superior disease resistance. PD

–From Agri-Nutrition Consulting Inc.