Current Progressive Dairy digital edition

Calf trial: Colostrum-based supplement vs. serum-based supplement

Sarina Kiesser for Progressive Dairyman Published on 23 November 2016

Maintaining a healthy herd from birth until cow retirement benefits a dairy. A healthy animal can lead to lower maintenance and treatment costs, and even increased milk productivity.

Early in a calf’s life, key immune factors are inherited mostly through the consumption of maternal colostrum, which contains key antibodies like immunoglobulins. The absorption of colostral immunoglobulins is essential to the health of a newborn calf, which initially lacks a mature immune system.



When maternal colostrum is lacking in quality and quantity, reliable colostrum-supplement products are life-saving. Alongside maternal colostrum-based supplements, serum-based products are frequently used in the dairy industry as supplementation.

All colostrum supplements contain a form of immunoglobulin G (IgG), but the two IgG subclasses (IgG1 and IgG2) concentrations vary between colostrum and serum.

Bradford P. Smith, DVM, professor at University of California – Davis Veterinary Medicine and author of Large Animal Internal Medicine 5th Edition, described that IgG1 and IgG2 are approximately one to one in serum while, in colostrum, IgG1 occurs at a ratio seven times higher.

Determining if these proteins are absorbed and achieve passive transfer is imperative because calves with inadequate immunoglobulin concentrations are prone to deficient immune systems.

Trial outline

Forty-five Holstein, Jersey and crossbreed heifer calves participated in the trial. Only healthy calves born with minimal or no assistance were included. Calves were immediately removed from their dams and were not allowed to nurse, then were placed in nursing pens for eight days.


Within six hours of birth, each calf was fed the same predetermined volume of fresh maternal colostrum with a 50-gram dose of test supplement product added. The three groups were assigned a 50-gram supplement test product: Group A, colostrum-based supplement; Group B, serum-based supplement; Group C (control), powdered milk replacer. After each group received the test product, the feeding protocol between groups was matched.

Researchers examined, weighed and assigned a numerical health score to each calf daily. Scoring categories included activity, ears, eyes, fecal, feeding, gum and hydration scores.

Each category was defined on a scorecard with a numerical ranking from 1 to 4. A score of 4 indicated a severely unhealthy calf, while a score of 1 indicated good health.

Blood samples were drawn within an hour after birth and 24 hours past initial feeding. All maternal colostrum was sampled and verified to have a Brix value between 22 and 26. Both blood samples and colostrum samples were analyzed using radial immunodiffusion to determine IgG concentration.

Trial outcome

Daily observations tallying the categories on the scorecard showed a clear improvement of Group A (colostrum) calf health; seven calves in the group had an overall healthy score. In comparison, only two calves from Group B (serum) were marked with an overall healthy score, and Group C (control) had four calves marked overall healthy.

Fecal score is an important indicator of calf health. Vital nutrients, minerals and water are lost through diarrhea. A North Dakota State University study stated that scours can cause alteration of the absorption of fluids from the intestine and cause life-threatening electrolyte imbalances.


In essence, a scouring calf rapidly dehydrates and suffers electrolyte loss and acidosis. Tracking fecal consistency throughout the trial (Figure 1), Group B had the most elevated fecal scores, demonstrating compromised health.

Fecal scores of all 45 calves

No calves in Group A reported incidences of moderate diarrhea, while six in Group B and two in Group C did. Calves with elevated fecal scores were treated with multiple commercially available electrolyte treatments.

At the conclusion of the trial, all calves were in good health; however, calves in Group B and Group C required extra personnel time and electrolyte treatments to achieve health equivalent to the calves in Group A.

Tracking weight is a clinical tool to assess the health of a calf; therefore, average daily gain was assessed (Table 1). In an attempt to mitigate variable effects, the average daily gain from this trial corresponded only to the first eight days.

Average daily gain of calves fed lgG supplement

Group A had the greatest daily gain of 99.36 grams per day, which was more than twice that of Group B (43.2 grams per day). Group C had minimal daily gain, which would indicate that adding a colostrum supplement to pre-weaning feeding could have a positive effect on calf growth. Additional IgG, protein, fat and other constituents in supplements clearly correlated to an increased weight gain of the calves.

Total IgG fed could be determined because IgG was quantified in the maternal colostrum administered, and each test supplement had a known amount. Therefore, an apparent efficacy of IgG absorption could be calculated.

Final IgG absorption values were calculated to be 43.10 plus or minus 14.22 percent, 38.13 plus or minus 19.07 percent, and 39.62 plus or minus 17.60 percent for groups A, B and C, respectively (n=15).

Group A had the lowest standard deviation as well as the highest average IgG absorption, which would indicate that not only did the calves absorb the most IgG from colostrum-based supplements, but they also did so the most consistently.

Taking into consideration that the control group was not fed extra IgG, their IgG absorption could be used as a baseline, and Groups A and B could be compared to this baseline (Figure 2).

Percent lgG abosrbed relative to contorl Group C

Using 39.62 percent (Group C’s absorption) as the baseline of comparison, Group A actually absorbed 8.78 percent more relative to the control, while Group C absorbed 3.76 percent less. Interestingly, Group B calves did absorb IgG, but none of the absorption could be attributed to the serum-based supplement.

Final thoughts

The health of calves fed colostrum-based IgG supplement were most positively impacted. A major quantifiable difference was that calves in Group A’s average daily gain was more than double the average daily gain of Groups B and C.

This increased weight gain is likely attributed to Group A’s minimal diarrhea. Groups B and C calves displayed more cases of mild diarrhea and numerous cases of moderate diarrhea.

Unhealthy bowel movements were not the only negative health effects seen more prevalently in Groups B and C; they also scored worse on average for activity level, ear droop/discharge, eye discharge, gum discoloration and hydration level.

Along with having better health, Group A was able to absorb 8.78 percent more IgG relative to the calves in the control group, while group B actually absorbed -3.76 percent relatively. This negative number would indicate that the calves fed serum-based supplement did not absorb any of the supplemental dosage.

Despite efforts to reduce natural variability that occurs on a functioning dairy, some impacts were observed in the results. However, Group A calves were healthier within a week of life due to a colostrum-based supplement feeding in comparison with a serum-based supplement feeding or no additional supplement feeding.  end mark

Sarina Kiesser is a R&D scientist with La Belle Inc. Email Sarina Kiesser.