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Manage colostrum before and after calving

Phillip Jardon for Progressive Dairy Published on 13 December 2021

It’s common knowledge that feeding adequate volumes of high-quality colostrum benefits the health and growth of the calf. It’s also known that calves that receive good-quality colostrum right after birth carry those benefits throughout their lives as heifers and even into the lactating herd. Therefore, it makes good sense to emphasize protocols that lead to the development and management of high-quality colostrum.

While much has been analyzed about the right way to handle colostrum once it’s out of the cow, not as much emphasis has been focused on the actual development of colostrum inside the cow. It stands to reason that since we rely on the cow to make the colostrum, we should do all we can to make sure she produces the highest-quality colostrum possible.

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For the calf to receive antibodies from the colostrum, those antibodies need to be present inside the cow when colostrum is being developed. Logically, a cow with higher antibody levels will transfer more of those antibodies to the colostrum than a cow with lower antibody levels.

Cows build up antibodies when they are exposed to pathogens, be it in their normal routine or when they succumb to a disease, building up levels each time to fend off the next pressure from outside pathogens. These antibodies can also be a result of a vaccination program, which forces the cow to experience antigens from disease-causing pathogens. A typical vaccination protocol begins with an initial dose to stimulate antibody production with annual booster shots to maintain antibody levels.

The transfer of antibodies from the dam into the colostrum starts about five weeks prior to calving and ends a day or two before the calf is born. With that in mind, it’s a good idea to have the highest antibody levels inside the cow at around six weeks prior to calving. Vaccination with a scours vaccine at or just prior to dry off annually (two doses are required the first year) can be effective at increasing antibody levels.

A 2021 study by Elanco showed the effectiveness of vaccinating cows with a scours vaccine. In this study, carried out in a commercial herd, cows were vaccinated with a scours vaccine (Scour Bos) eight to nine weeks prior to calving and again four weeks after the initial vaccination. Results showed that animals vaccinated with Scour Bos had significantly higher colostral antibody titers to bovine coronavirus and bovine rotavirus than unvaccinated animals. This means calves consuming this higher-antibody colostrum will have a greater chance of providing passive immunity and fighting off disease pressures after birth.

The development of high-quality colostrum in the cow puts greater emphasis on the management of that colostrum once the calf is born. Elanco representatives have conducted colostrum audits on a number of dairies across the U.S. and have identified several areas to focus on to enhance colostrum management:

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  • Get it cool and keep it cool. Regular milk, once it leaves the cow in the milking parlor, is quickly cooled either in a bulk tank or through a plate cooler. Conversely, it may take some time before the temperature of harvested colostrum is reduced. As it sits, often in the open, bacteria can grow and accumulate to reduce colostrum quality. Get colostrum from the cow to the cooler quickly to reduce bacterial growth.
  • Keep it clean. Think about the process in place to keep the milking system clean. Disinfection and sanitation reduce pathogen levels, and the same needs to be done with equipment used to harvest and feed colostrum. This includes feeding tubes, nipples, bottles and any equipment the colostrum touches.
  • Keep it fresh. Just like dairy products on a grocer’s refrigerated shelf should be rotated with expired product thrown out, colostrum should also be fed fresh with old colostrum thrown out or reprocessed for older calves. Develop a system so that colostrum is rotated so that old colostrum is not fed to a newborn calf.

Quality colostrum is the key to getting calves started off on the right foot. The stronger immunity carries throughout the life of the calf and even through her lactating years. Take the right steps to make sure quality colostrum is produced inside the cow, then manage colostrum appropriately once it’s harvested to maintain quality until it’s consumed by the calf.  end mark

Phillip Jardon
  • Phillip Jardon

  • Dairy Technical Consultant
  • Elanco Animal Health
  • Email Phillip Jardon

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