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What colostrum audits are telling us

Phillip Jardon for Progressive Dairy Published on 07 May 2022

There are certain times on a dairy when it is necessary to take a moment to assess performance in key management areas. There are TMR audits, parlor audits, reproduction audits and other assessment programs that help gauge successes and, most importantly, outline areas for continuous improvement.

Colostrum management is one of those key management areas. Although confined to a relatively short period of time, how your operation manages colostrum can have significant impact on the health and performance of your calves, which impacts lifetime performance of the cows in your herd.

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Colostrum audit goals

Over recent years, Elanco has conducted colostrum audits on several U.S. dairy farms. The goals of the audits are straightforward:

  • Describe current colostrum management protocols
  • Evaluate the colostrum management procedures
  • Outline areas for improvement

The audits are conducted by company personnel in coordination with the herd veterinarian. The entire colostrum management process is evaluated, from harvest to storage to feeding. Once the evaluation is made, results are presented to the management team to outline what was found and discuss areas for improvement.

Common management themes

As more audits are conducted, common themes have surfaced that identify areas where colostrum management improvements can be made. Here are a few of those areas:

  • Colostrum quality: The quality of colostrum harvested on dairies continues to vary significantly from cow to cow. It’s critically important that the newborn calf receives the best colostrum possible as soon as possible after birth. Because colostrum quality can vary, it is important to test colostrum quality with a colostrometer or refractometer.

If using a colostrometer, ideal colostrum is over 50 milligrams per milliliter. Refractometer readings should show 22% or higher total solids. Segregate higher-quality colostrum and use that to feed at first feedings. Lower-quality colostrum can be pooled, and fortifiers can be added to increase quality before delivering to the calf at second and third feedings.

If calves go to an offsite grower to be raised, make sure they have adequate levels of colostrum before leaving. One simple way to make sure this happens is to mark the calf at each feeding. If the protocol is to receive two feedings of colostrum, calves should not leave the dairy until they have two marks indicating at least two colostrum feedings.

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  • Colostrum temperature: We continue to see wide variations in how colostrum is handled once it leaves the cow and temperature when it is fed. When harvesting colostrum, treat it as close to how you handle normal milk as possible. Regular milk, once it leaves the cow, is quickly cooled either in a bulk tank or through a plate cooler. Do the same with colostrum. Quickly cool the colostrum to at least 40ºF to slow bacterial growth. Then run the colostrum through a pasteurizer before cooling it back down to either feed it at body temperature (101ºF) or store it at 40ºF or below.

During the audit, we will use a variety of thermometer types placed in the colostrum to monitor temperature variations. This provides a good indicator of how quickly colostrum is cooled or if temperatures are high enough during pasteurization to be effective at killing bacteria. Regardless of how you monitor temperature, it’s important to be consistent to make sure colostrum is handled properly.

  • Cleanliness: While every aspect of colostrum management is important, nothing can ruin high-quality colostrum faster than storing or feeding it in equipment that isn’t completely clean. It is critically important to consistently and thoroughly clean any piece of equipment that comes into contact with the colostrum or the calf. Think about the process used to keep the milking system clean, and use this same diligence to clean colostrum harvest, storage and feeding equipment. This includes feeding tubes, nipples, bottles and any equipment the colostrum touches, and don’t forget to examine any gasket used to seal any of the harvest or storage containers.

An ideal system

Through the audit process we have seen a wide variety of colostrum management systems, some better than others. The better management systems handle colostrum this way:

1. Cows have been vaccinated with a scours vaccine in a timely manner prior to calving to maximize colostrum development.

2. Cows are milked within the first hour of calving or twice to three times each day. As time goes by after calving and the mammary gland increases milk secretion, antibodies are diluted in the colostrum, so it’s important to milk the cow as soon after calving as possible to optimize colostrum quality and antibody levels.

3. Colostrum is harvested in clean containers with clean equipment, then cooled after harvest to 40ºF and stored until pasteurization.

4. Colostrum is pasteurized by heating it to 140ºF and holding at that temperature for 60 minutes.

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5. After pasteurization, colostrum is cooled back down to 40ºF. It is stored in a colostrum management bag or similar container and kept at 40ºF until feeding.

6. Prior to feeding, colostrum is warmed to body temperature.

7. All equipment that touches the colostrum or the calf is disinfected and sanitized every day.

The importance of properly managing colostrum is something that has been researched and discussed for some time. But there are many factors involved in the management of colostrum that have to be followed in order to maintain colostrum quality. Paying close attention to these management factors is certainly worthwhile, as we see the benefits of high-quality colostrum in healthier calves that become more productive cows later in life. end mark

This article is part two in a two-part series. Read part one, Create quality colostrum in the cow.

Phillip Jardon
  • Phillip Jardon

  • Dairy Technical Consultant
  • Elanco
  • Email Phillip Jardon

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