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Better colostrum handling could mean another source of income on dairies

Progressive Dairyman Editor Emily Caldwell Published on 01 September 2014

dairy cow

For years, dairy educators and researchers have emphasized the importance of getting colostrum into newborn calves.

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“What’s changed in the last 15 years is that we’re finally seeing dairy producers making colostrum a priority,” says Dr. Jonathan Hess of Hess Vet Service West, based in Hagerman, Idaho. “People understand that if you feed good colostrum to calves, it can have a direct effect on reducing death loss.”

But keeping a close eye on freshening cows and collecting colostrum from them early could also mean another source of revenue on the farm, without much investment, Hess says.

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Southfield Dairy, a 5,000-cow operation in Wendell, Idaho, began marketing their colostrum just a few years ago.

“This is cheap,” Hess says. “They spent about $2,000 to retrofit the maternity barn and get a bucket milker.”

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The number of fresh cows per day at the dairy ranges from 15 to 25. Once a cow calves, she is immediately milked into the bucket milker. She is also then milked as part of a group of fresh cows twice more, typically about 12 hours apart. So each cow’s colostrum is being collected three times.

About 25 percent of that colostrum is collected for the newborn calves; it is heat-treated through a colostrum pasteurizer and then immediately frozen into bottles. Newborn calves receive thawed colostrum from a previous milking.

colostrum pasteurizer

Hess stresses that the heat-treating is helping to eradicate some serious diseases.

“We’re seeing Johne’s and salmonella – and possibly other diseases – decrease because of the colostrum pasteurizer,” he says. “There have been some trial studies showing calves receive better antibody transfer with heat-treated colostrum. Good colostrum is really setting these calves up for the rest of their lives.”

The other 75 percent of the colostrum being collected on the dairy is immediately frozen into buckets. The colostrum company – in this case, Sterling Technology – prefers not to have the product heat-treated. The company picks up the frozen colostrum, delivers replacement buckets for filling and pays the farm about $4 a gallon.

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frozen colostrum

The company does not require colostrum testing on the farm. The Roeloffs family at Southfield Dairy has offered they would add testing to the colostrum collection protocol if the company was willing to pay a premium for the final product.

After the colostrum is picked up, the company performs the quality testing and then stores the colostrum at one of their warehouses (with locations in Twin Falls, Idaho; Clovis, New Mexico; and Visalia, California). From there, product is shipped to and processed at a facility in South Dakota.

Southfield Dairy had been collecting colostrum mostly from second (or more) lactation cows, with the school of thought being that older cows offered a better bank of antibodies and greater immunity for the calves.

“But companies are starting to purchase heifer colostrum,” Hess says. “And at this farm, we’re seeing really high quality heifer colostrum.”

For Hess, who says he’s “been trying to get people fired up about how important colostrum handling is,” this new market for the product is exciting.

“It’s kind of neat,” he says. “Dairies not only have another source of income, but they also (have) the opportunity to provide a product that could benefit human health around the world.” PD

Read more about the human uses for cows’ colostrum in this Aug. 21, 2014, article from Progressive Dairyman, "Bovine colostrum: Not just for calves any more."

Photos by PD Editor Emily Caldwell.

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