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Colostrum temperature: Not too hot, not too cold, just right

Bobbi Brockmann and Dale Miller for Progressive Dairy Published on 03 February 2022

Remember the children’s story “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” in which a young girl tastes three different bowls of porridge and discovers she doesn’t like it too hot or too cold but at just the right temperature? When it comes to preferences, calves and Goldilocks share something in common.

We all know it is important that newborn calves receive nutrient-rich colostrum as soon as possible after birth. This colostrum provides valuable maternal-derived antibodies, along with a much-needed energy source. But did you know that the temperature of that critical first feeding is also important when developing a successful colostrum management program?

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Colostrum should be fed at normal calf body temperature, which is between 101.5°F and 102.5°F. If you follow that protocol, how do you check the temperature? On a 2,500-cow dairy in New York, the calf team believed they were feeding colostrum at the right temperature. However, upon checking with a thermometer, they discovered the colostrum was being fed between 50°F to 60°F, far below the recommended range of 100-104°F. Going forward, this farm set up a warming protocol using a stabilized water-temperature bath to ensure temperature consistency. The results were immediately visible as calves were more vigorous and healthier.

What happens if colostrum is not fed at the temperature range of 100-104°F? It is very common to see producers thaw frozen colostrum or warm refrigerated colostrum in a pail of hot water, and then they do the “touch” test to check the temperature. A couple of issues arise from this method.

1. Too cold: How many times have you filled a bucket with hot water, added the colostrum, went and did a small chore, walked back and checked the temperature by touch, and then added more hot water because it just didn’t feel warm enough? You get distracted and the colostrum sits too long in a warm bath before it gets fed. Unfortunately, pathogens double in number every 20 minutes at 70°F.

Also, cold colostrum can cause hypothermia of varying degrees. If severe enough, it can kill the calf. Hypothermia slows all bodily functions and therefore the abomasum (true stomach) and small intestine will slow their activity. This can lead to delayed abomasal emptying time and decreased immunoglobulin gamma (IgG) absorption at the level of the small intestine. At minimum, the calf must use energy to warm back up.

2. Too hot: Did you know that temps above 140°F can damage some of the immunoglobulins and functional bioactive ingredients in the colostrum? While it is important to quickly heat the colostrum, be careful to not overheat it, and never microwave colostrum.

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Achieving “just right” can be a challenge. Before the next calf is born on your farm, analyze your colostrum program and develop solid standard operating procedures (SOP) that help secure a successful first meal for your calves. To get started, here are a few common first steps:

  • Harvest clean colostrum in clean equipment from clean cows.
  • Measure to verify colostrum quality – it should be 22% (or higher) Brix.
  • Feed colostrum within two hours of birth, if possible.
  • When warming colostrum, use a warm water bath maintained at about 105°F (never exceed 120°F) and verify how long the colostrum takes to reach that temperature. Depending on the container, the time to reach the recommended temperature will vary.
  • Use a thermometer to ensure a feeding temperature close to the calf’s normal body temperature (appropriate range is 100-104°F).

As a sales team, we walk a lot of calf hutches and pens and help dairy producers ensure that their calves receive the necessary nutrition and immune support for a strong and healthy start. But what may be “just right” on one farm may not work on the next calf operation. That’s why it’s important to customize action plans and develop the most appropriate calf care and disease prevention program for your specific needs.  end mark

PHOTO: Mike Dixon.

Dale Miller is the sales and marketing manager for ImmuCell for Northeast U.S. and Canada. Email Dale Miller.

Bobbi Brockmann
  • Bobbi Brockmann

  • Vice President of Sales and Marketing
  • ImmuCell
  • Email Bobbi Brockmann

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