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Dos and don’ts of dairy colostrum

Andy Beckel for Progressive Dairyman Published on 24 August 2017

Every day, we make hundreds of decisions. Some are big, while some appear minor and without a significant future impact. Colostrum handling is one of those processes that falsely appears to only have short-term consequences.

Yet a bad decision about the way we feed colostrum today can easily cost us a fortune two years later when today’s calves join the milking herd.

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Proper colostrum feeding is the foundation of a new animal, and whether it is done correctly or not will affect the calf for the rest of its life. Unlike a human baby, a calf does not receive immunity through the placenta. It is up to the calf manager or maternity worker to complete the process.

Each newborn is thus fully dependent on the maternity person as to whether they will lead a healthy, productive life or one filled with struggles.

Research proves a well-executed colostrum feeding does more than successfully transfer passive immunity; it starts the calf’s digestive and reproductive functions. Proper colostrum feeding is also linked to fewer incidences of pneumonia as a calf and, in the long term, earlier calving and higher overall milk production.

How, then, can you avoid making costly colostrum mistakes? Here is a look at some of the do’s and don’ts of colostrum management.

Do’s

  • Do check the colostrum you plan on feeding. Use a digital refractometer to measure the amount of immunity in your colostrum. Only feed colostrum that has more than 50 grams of immunoglobulin G’s per liter or an equivalent of 22 percent on a Brix scale.

    Avoid mixing high- and low-quality colostrum. Instead, use the high-quality colostrum for a first feeding and save the lower-quality for a second feeding or to boost sick calves. If you typically store colostrum, ensure refrigerated colostrum is no more than 24 hours old, and frozen colostrum is no more than 12 months old.

    For longer than 24-hour storage, use a commercial-grade freezer to protect the quality of your colostrum. Remember to always discard bloody and mastitic colostrum.

  • Do feed colostrum as soon as possible after birth. Your goal should be to feed colostrum within half-an-hour after birth. Research shows the sooner a calf is fed, the easier it is for it to absorb the immune components in the colostrum into its system.

    Physiologically, the newborn calf is able to absorb the immune components into the bloodstream in the first two hours, but other important components of colostrum such as fats and insulin are critical to starting the calf’s body functions immediately. Another concern with feeding too late is that calves not fed right away will begin to look for food and, in the process, may ingest manure, increasing their risk of illness.

  • Do treat your colostrum as the liquid gold it is and give it the attention it deserves. Invest in a colostrum management system that ensures it is stored, warmed up and fed properly. Warming alone can do a lot of harm if done incorrectly, so purchase a colostrum warming unit that uses technology rather than high temperature to speed up the warming time.

    If you want to be proactive about reducing bacteria in the colostrum, get a colostrum pasteurizer, but know that milk and colostrum pasteurizers are two different machines. Colostrum is very sensitive to temperature changes and must be treated differently than milk. Even when warming colostrum up to feeding temperature, keep the water at no more than 120ºF to prevent denaturing the colostral immunity.

Don’ts

  • Don’t let colostrum sit out. Feed, pasteurize or immediately store it in a commercial freezer or a refrigerator. Leaving colostrum at room temperature allows bacteria to double every 20 minutes. Not only do these bacteria infect the calf, they also feed off of the proteins contained in colostrum, lowering its effectiveness.

  • Don’t underfeed. Besides providing immunity that protects the calf from outside invaders, colostrum also contains important nutrients and minerals that help the calf kick-start its digestion and stimulate its growth. It is therefore critical to feed the calf at least 4 quarts for larger breeds or 3 quarts for smaller breeds on the first feeding. If possible, feed a second feeding of 2 quarts six to eight hours later.

  • Don’t assume feeding equipment is clean. Hygiene on a dairy is the most common culprit of calfhood problems. Don’t get caught up in it. Instead, make sure you have as many tube feeders/nipple feeders as you’d expect newborn calves on a busy day. This way you know each new calf will be fed with a clean instrument.

    Make sure to thoroughly clean all buckets and bottles after each use or, better yet, as part of your colostrum management system, implement disposable colostrum bags that will save on labor and ensure clean colostrum storage and handling.

Managing colostrum the right way isn’t scary or difficult, but it does require attention to detail. Without the right tools, it can even be time-consuming. Do your research and find tools to help you consistently take excellent care of your colostrum and your newborn calves.

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Remember: A colostrum management system has the highest payback of any calf technology. It pays for itself early on by reducing medical and veterinary calf bills, and it continues to pay by reducing the number of days till calving. Eventually it re-pays for itself again through higher milk production.  end mark

Andy Beckel
  • Andy Beckel

  • President/Owner
  • Golden Calf Company LLC
  • Email Andy Beckel

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