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Don’t let colostrum basics fall through the cracks

David Cook Published on 17 January 2014

Colostrum is undoubtedly one of the most important feeding practices for newborn calves. Sound, well-communicated protocols are often put into place to ensure successful passive transfer of immunity and a healthy start for the newborn calf.

But as time passes and changes are made to the employee team, protocols and attention to detail can fall through the cracks.



Colostrum basics – such as quality, quantity, quickness and cleanliness – may seem just that: basic. But without these fundamentals, the proven lifelong benefits of colostrum are often compromised.

Staying focused on colostrum may mean starting at the beginning and reiterating the simple practices that have long been used to manage colostrum effectively.

To help your employees stay focused on what matters most when it comes to colostrum, this article walks through four key basics for success: quality, quantity, quickness and cleanliness.

Stay focused on quality
Colostral immunoglobulin (Ig) concentration is the most common measure of colostrum quality. However, several studies have proven maternal colostrum can vary, not only from farm to farm but also from cow to cow on a single dairy.

It is crucial for dairies to have a good pulse on colostral IgG concentrations. Unless quality is monitored regularly, it is likely that some calves will not receive enough Ig, although they may be consuming plenty of colostrum.


Harvesting colostrum as soon as possible after calving is a key practice to maximizing colostrum quality. Studies show Ig concentration steadily declines as hours pass from calving to first milking.

Review charts, such as Figure 1 , with all employees – fresh pen managers, milkers and calf feeders – to reinforce the importance of teamwork and a team approach to providing quality colostrum to calves.

 Ig concentration steadily declines as hours pass from calving to first milking

Review the following quality basics regularly at team meetings:

• Immunoglobulin concentration – 50 g per L Ig is “good.”

• Test for quality with a colostrum tester (refractometer or colostrometer).


• Colostrum should be free of blood, debris and mastitis.

• Colostrum should be disease-free.

Stay focused on quantity
Although quality could be argued the most important of the basics, it cannot stand alone. Once employees have a good understanding of what defines quality colostrum, making sure calves get an adequate amount of it is just as valuable. Focus on simple, easy-to-communicate protocols, such as feeding:

• 10 percent of birthweight – approximately 4 quarts to a 100-pound Holstein calf

• 3 quarts if fed by bottle (if good quality, approximately 140 g Ig intake)

• 4 quarts if fed by tube (if good quality, approximately 190 g Ig intake)

Stay focused on quickness
Employees often juggle several tasks and are asked to wear different hats from day to day on the dairy. Reiterate the importance of feeding colostrum quickly after birth, within two hours if possible.

As shown in Figure 2 , a calf’s ability to transfer immunoglobulins from the digestive tract to the bloodstream decreases over time after birth. During team meetings, share visuals such as this one, reminding employees that timing is everything.

a calf’s ability to transfer immunoglobulins from the digestive tract to the bloodstream decreases over time after birth

Stay focused on cleanliness
The last of the basics, cleanliness, can often be overlooked or taken for granted. It’s easy to assume that employees just know, but all too often, they don’t. The team approach can be applied to maintaining cleanliness as well. It starts from the moment that cow enters the parlor until the calf is fed, and every minute in between. Walk through the following with employees regularly:

• Proper udder preparation before milking colostrum

• Clean and sanitizing milking equipment before collection

• Proper cooling or freezing as soon after collection as possible

• Clean and sanitizing feeding equipment properly before feeding colostrum

Research from the University of Minnesota has demonstrated if colostrum collection, handling and feeding protocols are not clearly established and followed, calves are at greater risk for failure of passive transfer. There are several practical measures that can be taken to reduce the risk of failure of passive transfer.

One example is having two esophageal tube feeders that are color-coded – one for sick calves and one for newborn calves – to minimize the spread of disease among calves. Another could be as simple as spot-checking the bacteria load being delivered to the calf through colostrum.

Take a sample of colostrum just before feeding the calf from the tube feeder or bottle and check it for total bacteria count at a local lab or at your dairy plant (make sure the colostrum sample is properly labeled so it is not confused with salable milk samples). The total bacterial count goal for unpasteurized colostrum is to be less than 100,000 colony-forming units per ml.

Re-training the basics
Having constant reminders and goals related to proper colostrum management posted near calving and colostrum storage areas can help employees stay focused on areas that really count.

Establish data log sheets and require employees to document date and time of birth, time of first feeding, colostrometer or refractometer readings of maternal colostrum, quantity fed and method of feeding (tube or nipple) for each calf – initialed by the responsible employee.

Then work with calf managers to encourage and incentivize colostrum management practices with proven benefits. Also encourage the basics – quality, quantity, quickness and cleanliness – in regular employee communication opportunities. PD

David Cook has a Ph.D. in dairy physiology from the University of Missouri and is technical service manager for Milk Products Inc. He works from his home office in Harrisonville, Missouri.

Dave Cook

David Cook
Technical Services Manager
Milk Products Inc.