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Bovine colostrum: Not just for calves any more

Dave Wilkins Published on 22 August 2014

calf drinking

Bovine colostrum has come a long way in the past few decades.



It’s no longer just the “first milk” fed to calves to boost their immune systems. Now it’s used in a growing list of products for humans.

Colostrum-containing products include dietary supplements, infant formula and sports nutrition concoctions.

Many of the supplements marketed today target consumers who want to improve joint mobility, reduce inflammation or improve gut health.

U.S. colostrum manufacturers point to the early contribution made by William Petersen, a dairy science professor at the University of Minnesota. Petersen was interested in the immunological quality of cow’s milk. As part of his research in the late 1950s, he immunized cows against human disease pathogens.

Building on that research, entrepreneurs got involved and discovered that bovine colostrum could be pasteurized and dried without losing viability.


An industry was born. By the early 1980s, several U.S. companies were manufacturing powdered colostrum.

Manufacturers continue to develop new specialized products every year. One of the most promising new areas involves the use of advanced techniques such as chromatography to make purified fractions.

As new, more sophisticated uses are found for colostrum, the value of the raw product is expected to increase. This will provide an opportunity for dairymen who want to collect and sell high-quality raw colostrum to manufacturers .

Dairy cows produce colostrum far in excess of calf requirements. Mature cows can produce up to 40 to 50 kilograms in four days. According to one study, calves normally consume only about one-third that amount.

According to a research report released last year by the U.S. Dairy Export Council (USDEC), animal use makes up about 70 percent of total colostrum product sales, while human use accounts for about 30 percent. Those percentages are likely to change in the coming years.

“Personally, I think it will go higher on the human side because we are finding more and more new uses for colostrum,” says Randy Kjelden, president of South Dakota-based Sterling Technology, a major manufacturer for both the human and livestock segments of the market.


With new fractionation technology, colostrum products could move out of the traditional supplement category and into the skin care, medical and pharmaceutical markets, Kjelden says.

As more colostrum goes into products intended for humans, it could affect the supply of colostrum used to make the replacer and supplement products used to feed dairy calves.

But it’s difficult to predict what future availability will be, industry sources say. Any product that fails to meet the exacting specifications for the human market would likely be diverted to the calf market.

The human market for colostrum gained momentum with passage of the Dietary Supplement Health Education Act in 1994.

“That opened up a whole lot of things,” Kjelden says. “DSHEA gave us the right to use peer-reviewed journals to help market the product.”

Global supply and demand data for colostrum is not easily accessible. The USDA and corresponding government agencies in other countries don’t track colostrum production the way they do fluid milk or block cheese, for instance.

But rough estimates provided by industry sources put current demand for colostrum powder worldwide at about six million pounds annually.

The three main human-use markets are the U.S., Europe and Asia. Asia (primarily China) is by far the largest market with estimated human consumption of nearly 1,600 metric tons (powder equivalent) in 2012, according to the USDEC report. The U.S. was the second-leading market with 750 metric tons.

Historically, the largest producers of colostrum powder have been the U.S. and New Zealand.

The global market underwent a big shakeup in 2012 when China banned the use of bovine colostrum in infant formula.

That hit companies such as Sterling Technology hard.

“That was really a big part of our business and when (China) banned that it was a real shock to us. We had a lot of eggs in one basket,” Kjelden says.

Since then, Sterling has diversified into more human-use products.

“One area in the U.S. that’s really picking up speed is sports nutrition,” Kjelden says. “That’s one of the areas we got into when the China market went away.”

New Zealand had a big chunk of the China infant formula business but is no longer a major player in the global colostrum market, industry participants say.

Like China, the U.S. and Europe do not allow bovine colostrum in infant formula. But some Asian countries, such as Korea and Vietnam, still do.

“The announcement from China was not the end of that business,” says Veronique LaGrange, senior vice president of strategy and insights for USDEC.

Despite the infant formula ban, China remains an important colostrum market.

The Chinese have been using colostrum for human wellness purposes for generations and are far ahead of Americans and Europeans in that regard, Kjelden says.

In addition, China’s dairy industry continues to boom, providing opportunities on the livestock side of the business.

“We will see continued expansion of the dairy industry in China,” LaGrange says. “With modern production techniques, I think there will be some modest but not insignificant increased use (of colostrum) in feed.”

Wholesale bulk prices for lower-grade bulk colostrum powder have been running about $30 per kilogram, down from $50 not that long ago, according to industry sources.

The reduced prices are attributed to increased U.S. production and continued Chinese regulatory concerns.

Bulk colostrum prices can vary widely depending on quality (immunoglobulin content) and the intended market. Prices for high-grade colostrum have been as high as $100 per kilogram recently.

The greatest market potential appears to be in high-value products for human use.

The U.S. market for colostrum-based products (particularly for children and aging populations) is significant, worth an estimated $491 million in 2011 alone, according to the USDEC report.

The report also identifies some obstacles for the industry going forward. For one thing, research doesn’t support all the various marketing claims being made about colostrum supplements.

“Nobody knows how much colostrum is needed for an effect, what that effect might be, what population groups would benefit and whether it’s safe for everyone at a given dose,” authors of the report say.

According to the report, real health-improving effects could be more easily proven with purified fractions extracted from colostrum.

Currently, that segment of the market is small and very capital- intensive, but has “huge potential,” authors of the report say.

“If only some specific applications like gut health and oral care products prove successful, it would be enough to exceed the value of the total current market for raw colostrum,” the report states.

“For this reason, U.S. companies involved in the colostrum business could strengthen their position by focusing on the development of purified products and high-value fractions,” the report concludes. PD

Dave Wilkins is a freelance writer based in Twin Falls, Idaho.

If only some specific applications like gut health and oral care products prove successful, it would be enough to exceed the value of the total current market for raw colostrum. Photo by PD staff.