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Colostrum is good, but let’s make it great

Stephen Hayes Published on 30 August 2013

Colostrum is good for calves. It is the only way we transfer the cow’s immunity to the calf at birth.

Having good-quality colostrum is why many dairies have gone to monitoring the quality of their colostrum to make sure they are providing their newborn calves with the highest-quality product they can.



A colostrometer or a BRIX refractometer (preferred) can help them determine on-site if the concentration of antibodies is high enough to give to the newborn calf.

Once they have determined they have a high concentration of antibodies, they feed up to a gallon of colostrum to the calf shortly after birth with the intent of achieving successful passive transfer.

The above represents a good colostrum program using good-quality colostrum, but many dairies following this protocol are still experiencing scours and respiratory problems in their pre-weaned calves. This may be why we need to turn our good colostrum program into a great one.

Bacterial contamination of colostrum is common on many dairies. Samples of colostrum can be taken and analyzed for total plate counts and results should be less than 100,000 colony-forming units (CFU) per ml.

If the bacterial counts are higher than this, there is a good chance that colostrum may actually be causing some harm to our newborn calves. Keeping bacteria counts in colostrum low is important to make sure our pre-weaned calves stay healthy.


Pasteurizers have become popular over the past 10 years on dairies and calf-raising facilities.

A pasteurizer is a piece of equipment designed for use with milk or colostrum that when used correctly will greatly reduce, if not eliminate, the transfer of pathogenic organisms (Johne’s disease, salmonella, e. coli and others) from milk or colostrum to the young calf.

Traditional pasteurization procedures such as “HTST” or “flash” have not been found to work with colostrum, since colostrum can coagulate and create cheese-like residues which will plug these machines.

Recent research has found that traditional batch pasteurization (145°F for 30 minutes) will not coagulate the colostrum, but it will lead to a reduction in the level of viable antibodies in the colostrum. This is a concern since we feed colostrum for the transfer of antibodies to the calf.

Dr. Godden’s group at the University of Minnesota has done research showing that a modified batch pasteurization protocol of 60°C (about 140°F) for 60 minutes is effective at greatly reducing or eliminating the transfer of major pathogens with little to no damage to the valuable antibodies.

This research has led to the development of pasteurizers specifically designed for colostrum on the dairy. Traditional batch pasteurizers for milk are not recommended for colostrum unless they have been programmed to have the above time and temperature levels for colostrum.


There are UV pasteurizers on the market, but I am not aware of enough independent data to support their use in pasteurizing colostrum and therefore do not recommend these units at this time.

Colostrum that is pasteurized and contains lower bacteria levels has been found to have a higher efficiency of antibody absorption in the newborn calf.

Feeding pasteurized colostrum also has less chance of introducing disease that could be present in the colostrum to the newborn calf. This is a nice combined benefit from pasteurizing colostrum.

Because of the fragile nature of colostrum, do not try pasteurizing colostrum on your own. Purchase a pasteurizer designed for colostrum from a reputable company that can service the machine if needed and follow their directions to make sure the equipment is functioning correctly.

If a pasteurizer seems like the right way to improve colostrum quality for your dairy, there are some important items to review before writing out the check.

1. Garbage in, garbage out – One still has to collect good-quality colostrum because a pasteurizer will only reduce bacterial growth. It is not going to make low-antibody-containing colostrum or highly contaminated colostrum fit to be fed.

Start with good colostrum that has high levels of antibodies by following a protocol of early, clean collection of colostrum into clean equipment.

If only poor-quality colostrum can be collected, look at using a colostrum replacer and simplify the whole process. If colostrum is persistently low on antibody levels, consider supplementing pasteurized colostrum with a colostrum supplement.

2. Cleaning and sanitation protocols – Pasteurizers need to be cleaned just like the bulk tank and pipeline. Follow the manufacturer’s recommended procedures and do not shortcut the process. Cleanliness and sanitation are very important to making a colostrum pasteurizer work long term.

3. Storage and feeding protocols – Once colostrum has been pasteurized, either feed it or store it in a proper cool environment right away.

The colostrum will not be sterile, so poor storage will allow the bacteria present to grow. Do not re-contaminate pasteurized colostrum by using dirty storage or feeding equipment.

4. Monitor the pasteurizer – Monitor cleanliness by sampling pasteurized colostrum for total plate counts. Sample colostrum from the end of the tube feeder or nipple just before it would be going in the calf’s mouth.

If the plate counts are high, one can go back and sample different places to see where the problem is. Samples can be done weekly or even monthly depending on the size of the operation.

Monitoring is very important to make sure your investment in a pasteurizer is paying back dividends in healthier calves.

5. A pasteurizer does not replace good management – Do not buy a pasteurizer and then relax when it comes to managing the maternity pen and colostrum collection and feeding. A pasteurizer is only a tool to help your program become better.

Good management can look great when a pasteurizer is used correctly and monitored properly. Unfortunately, a pasteurizer will not improve a poorly managed newborn calf program.

A colostrum program needs to be good before it can be great. Collect samples and routinely monitor existing colostrum for antibody levels and bacterial load.

If you have already achieved a good-quality colostrum program, pasteurizing colostrum may be the next step to achieve a great colostrum program. PD

Stephen Hayes is a veterinary consultant with Day 1 Technology, based in Winona, Minnesota.


Stephen Hayes
DAY 1 Technology, LLC