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The benefits of supplementing your calf with colostrum – supplement or replacer?

Elizabeth Racine for Progressive Dairy Published on 21 May 2021

When it comes to ensuring the future success of a dairy operation, raising good replacement animals is essential. One of the most crucial steps in this process is colostrum management.

Failure of passive transfer not only increases morbidity and mortality of calves – with significant economic impacts for the producer – but it can also have negative impacts on feed efficiency, fertility and production later in life. In one study, supplementing calves with an additional 2 liters of maternal colostrum in the first hour after birth, later resulted in a significant increase in milk production during the first two lactations. Several other studies have also demonstrated improved rates of weight gain, decreased use of antibiotics and reduced age at first calving in calves achieving adequate passive transfer of immunity. Thus, producers must carefully evaluate their colostrum handling and administration to ensure that every calf is receiving an adequate volume of high-quality colostrum. One strategy to achieve this goal is to incorporate commercial colostrum products into your colostrum management plan.



When are colostrum products necessary?

Ideally, a newborn calf should consume 150-200 grams of immunoglobulins – or approximately 4 quarts of clean, fresh maternal colostrum – within the first few hours of life. Realistically, however, many on-farm factors can make this goal difficult or even impossible to achieve. Producers may wish to consider supplementing with a commercial colostrum product to address common colostrum management issues such as:

  • Death of the dam
  • Poor quality or inadequate volume of maternal colostrum
  • Mastitis or other maternal illness
  • Lack of stored colostrum on the farm
  • Control of infectious diseases, such as Johne’s disease and bovine leukemia virus
  • Late administration of colostrum, resulting in poorer absorption

In these cases, a commercial colostrum product may be given in place of or in conjunction with maternal colostrum to ensure the calf receives adequate immunoglobulin G (IgG) antibodies. The goal is for the calf to consume enough colostrum to achieve a serum IgG level of at least 10 milligrams per milliliter within the first 24 hours of life. After this point, the calf’s ability to absorb IgG is minimal and additional supplementation is unlikely to increase passive transfer, although studies show that IgG may be beneficial to the developing gastrointestinal system.

Supplement versus replacer – What’s the difference?

Although the terms “supplement” and “replacer” are often used interchangeably, these products are actually quite different. A colostrum supplement typically contains about 40-60 grams of IgG per dose. These products are generally cheaper than replacers but must be fed in conjunction with stored or maternal colostrum. Calves fed colostrum supplements alone will not receive enough IgG to prevent failure of passive transfer.

Colostrum replacers, on the other hand, contain higher levels of IgG and may be fed in absence of maternal colostrum. Typical colostrum replacers contain 100-150 grams of IgG per dose, as well as protein, fat and vitamins to support a calf’s nutritional needs in the first hours of life. To achieve the recommended intake of 4 quarts of colostrum within the first hours of life, producers may need to feed more than one dose of colostrum replacer. These products are typically more expensive than supplements but can be fed without additional colostrum supplementation.

How to choose an appropriate product for your farm

Maternal colostrum remains the gold standard to ensure your calves are healthy and thriving. However, when maternal colostrum is inadequate or unavailable, having commercial colostrum products ready at hand can quite literally be a lifesaver for your calves.


As with most farm management decisions, there is no one product that is best for all farms, or even all calves on the same farm. For example, producers working to eradicate Johne’s disease from their herds may choose to rely entirely on colostrum replacement products as a means of breaking the disease transmission cycle. On the opposite end of the spectrum, producers with ready access to high-quality, test-negative colostrum and the means to store it for future use, may find that they prefer to keep only colostrum supplements on hand for use on a calf-by-calf basis.

When developing a colostrum management strategy for your farm, factors to consider include:

  • Typical volume and quality of maternal colostrum available on your farm
  • Ability to freeze and store fresh colostrum for future use
  • Disease status of the herd
  • Typical timing of the first colostrum feeding
  • Average number of feedings in the first 24 hours of life
  • Storage and handling of commercial colostrum products
  • Cost to purchase colostrum products
  • Digestibility and apparent efficiency of absorption (AEA) of colostrum products

With these factors in mind, producers can select a product that best matches the farm’s needs. Ultimately, it is important to remember that colostrum products are a useful tool, but they are not a replacement for good herd management and sanitation. However, when used appropriately, colostrum products can support calf immunity and reduce the incidence of disease, leading to significant benefits for both the calf and the farm.

Choosing the best colostrum replacers

Not all colostrum products are created equal. When choosing a colostrum replacer for your farm, make sure you are getting a well-researched product from a reputable manufacturer. Licensed veterinary biological products are certified through the USDA Center for Veterinary Biologics (CVB) to ensure that the products you purchase are safe, effective and reliable. These products may be more costly, but they are a profitable investment in your farm’s future.

In addition to choosing a certified product, check the label to find the source of the IgGs used in its production. A dam’s colostrum has the highest Ig content within a few hours of calving, and Ig content quickly wanes over the next 24 hours. Choosing a colostrum replacer that is made with dried bovine first-day colostrum means that your calf will be receiving the optimal balance of protein, fat and Igs for those critical first hours of life.

For larger operations where cost is a concern, buying a slightly less expensive colostrum in bulk can be beneficial. Companies that manufacture USDA CVB-certified products often also manufacture other uncertified colostrum replacers, many of which are made in the same USDA-inspected facilities. Using an uncertified colostrum-replacer product from a reputable company may be a more cost effective workaround for larger herds or calf-rearing operations.


Supplements and replacers: A useful tool for colostrum management

Calves are the future of the dairy farm and good colostrum management is essential to protecting that future. While commercial colostrum products are an added expense for the farm, the resulting improvements in calf morbidity and mortality, as well as future fertility and production, make these products a worthwhile investment.  end mark

PHOTO: Photo by Mike Dixon. 

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Elizabeth Racine
  • Elizabeth Racine

  • Animal Nutrition Consultant
  • PanTheryx APS LaBelle
  • Email Elizabeth Racine