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Dairy colostrum 101: Review the basics in your colostrum protocol

Kailey Foster for Progressive Dairy Published on 06 July 2021

Colostrum is the most important thing a producer can give a newborn calf. Ideally, it should be fed within the first hour of life. What happens during the calf’s first hour of life will have the biggest impact on the animal, even through lactation. It is a critical window that will determine if that calf will live and be a productive member of the dairy.

Colostrum is the first milk secreted from a mammary gland after an animal’s dry period or the first milk secreted by a heifer. This milk supplies the calf with immunoglobulins (Igs), fats, minerals and biologically active proteins. However, as a producer, it’s important to keep in mind that colostrum may contain bacteria and can transfer diseases, which can pose a danger to the calf.

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Dr. Jud Heinrichs, Penn State University professor of dairy nutrition, discussed the importance of colostrum in his webinar titled “Dairy Colostrum 101.” In this webinar, Heinrichs outlined key areas including:

  1. Risk factors
  2. Management 
  3. Immunoglobulin recommendations

Risk factors

The first thing to keep in mind when feeding colostrum to calves is what will affect the colostrum. Calves have a limited immune system at birth. Unlike most animals, ruminants are unable to pass Igs through the placental barrier. They need to absorb antibodies and Igs from their mothers through colostrum. This opens the door to opportunities for bacteria and unwanted diseases to enter into the calf.

Bacteria can come from a variety of sources including the milking system, a cow’s udder and teats, milking equipment and even calf feeding equipment. Colostrum is not collected in a sterile environment; however, it is important that the milking location is kept as clean as possible.

Heinrichs said pathogen and bacteria transmission to these calves is usually the result of fecal-oral transmission. This source of transmission can result in E. coli, Johne’s disease, salmonella, bovine virus diarrhea, etc. Other risk factors for this transmission include fecal-navel, milk nasal-saliva and in utero.

Management

To ensure producers are feeding best-quality colostrum to their calves, Heinrichs stressed some key factors in management.

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  1. Be sure to feed colostrum as soon as possible after the calf is born – around one to two hours after birth.
  2. Feed good-quality colostrum. Heinrichs recommended the quality be greater than 60 grams per liter, which can be tested using a colostrometer.
  3. Don’t use the bad 5%-15% colostrum that is collected. This colostrum often doesn’t have enough Ig, started milking out early, diluted the colostrum out, etc.
  4. Feed a large volume of colostrum. Producers should be feeding calves 4 quarts of colostrum. This can be done in a 2-plus then 2-plus method. 

Heinrich stressed that to be sure producers are feeding their calves the proper colostrum, they need to test it. This can be done with a colostrometer before feeding the calves. A colostrometer can help a farmer determine which colostrum is sufficient to feed the calf. In addition to this, a producer can do blood tests to see if the calf is getting the proper level of immunoglobin G (IgG) from the colostrum at 24-48 hours.

Proper colostrum storage is also essential to colostrum management. If a producer is planning on keeping colostrum long term, freezing it in Ziploc bags to thaw later is recommended. Refrigeration is another option for short-term storage of up to one day.

Immunoglobulin recommendations

Igs are important for calf health. If a calf is unable to get enough Igs from colostrum, morbidity and mortality levels rise. The most important Ig a calf can get from colostrum is IgG.

Blood IgG levels are dependent on several different factors, including timing of feeding and quality and quantity of colostrum. If a calf is unable to receive enough IgGs from its mother, there are alternatives such as replacers and supplements that have a high IgG content.

When feeding calves, certain classifications for IgGs will help boost the animal’s health. It is recommended that a calf is fed a serum IgG level greater than or equal to 25 grams per liter and 9.4% Brix. Producers should look out for low IgG levels and not feed a calf colostrum with a serum IgG level less than 10 with a 8.1% Brix.  end mark

PHOTO: Photo by Jenna Hurty.

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Kailey Foster is a student at Utah State University.

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