It would be oversimplifying a very complex management situation, if you reduced calf management to feeding colostrum.  You must pay attention to a myriad of details. It all starts with the health and management of the mother and ripples out to include the environment, biosecurity, health and protocols of all the areas that touch on a calf before birth and after. Having said that, it is still valid to declare that colostrum remains the key to success with newborn calves. It is also where too many of us are falling short.

Not ALL Colostrum is Created EQUAL

Researcher Kim Morrill and a team of colleagues at Iowa State University conducted a study on colostrum quality. The team collected 827 samples of first-milking colostrum from 67 farms in 12 states between June and October 2010. The parity of donor cows was recorded, as was the storage method of the colostrum when it was sampled — either fresh, refrigerated or frozen.  The findings were reported in the July 2012 edition of the Journal of Dairy Science. What the team found is rather revealing. Only 39.4 percent of the samples met industry standards for both immunoglobulin (IgG) concentration and a bacteria measure known as total plate count (TPC).

Survival of calves with inadequate serum immunoglobulin concentrations is reduced, compared with calves having acceptable levels of immunity. Source: National Dairy Heifer Evaluation Project, NAHMS, 1992.

Therefore, slightly more than 60 percent of colostrum on dairy farms is inadequate, putting a large number of calves at risk of failure of passive transfer and/or bacterial infections.

If judged only on the basis of IgG, without looking at TPC, a sizeable number of the samples still fail to pass muster. Almost 30 percent of the samples had IgG concentrations that fell below the industry standard, which is defined as having more than 50 milligrams of IgG per milliliter.

Nearly 43 percent of the samples had total plate count or TPC that failed the industry standard, which is defined as having less than 100,000 colony-forming units per milliliter.

Colostrum Effectiveness: Goes Down Fast

08-001f1[1]The ability of the calf to absorb colostrum decreases with time. By 9 hours after birth the calf can only absorb half of the colostrum. By 24 hours the amount absorbed is minimal.

  • Feed the colostrum as soon as possible after birth
  • Feed calves one gallon of colostrum (100 pound calf). Minimum for Holsteins is 3 quarts.
  • Eight to twelve hours later feed another two quarts
  • Try to get the calf to suck the colostrum, whatever they do not suck will need to be tubed.

What about ARTIFICIAL Colostrum?

The most common methods used for evaluating colostrum quality are with a colostrometer, a refractometer or by visual appearance. The calf needs to continue to receive colostrum the first two days, if not from its mother then from another cow that has recently given birth. Manufactured colostrum replacers are also available.  Sometimes these arrive frozen. Because the antibodies in the colostrum are crucial to helping the calf build its disease resistance, thawing should be achieved slowly and carefully to avoid destroying the antibodies.

Quantity: This area needs improvement.

“A lot of dairy producers are giving only about 2 quarts of milk per calf per day. They’re doing a pretty good job of getting it to the calf early, but they’re not giving them a great enough quantity of milk. They need a gallon a day and more in cold weather.” Surveys show that 45.8 percent of operations hand-fed more than 2 quarts but less than 4 quarts of colostrum during the calves’ first 24 hours of life. there’s a lot of data on the role colostrum plays in growth, says Jim Drackley, dairy scientist at the University of Illinois and another of the roundtable participants.“The initial development of the intestinal tract in the first couple days of life is very much dependent on colostrum intake. We know that the basics include getting enough colostrum into the calf as quickly as possible, and that the colostrum should be of good quality in terms of its antibody concentration.

KEEP IT CLEAN: Unsanitary Colostrum

There is too much bacteria in much of the colostrum that is collected and fed on dairy farms. This could be the source of an early infection or give the calf problems in absorption.  But even people who feed adequate amounts can still have problems if the colostrum is unsanitary, points out Simon Timmermans, veterinarian from Sibley, Iowa. “We’ve started a HACCP protocol where we collect a random colostrum sample weekly before it goes into the calf,” Timmermans says. “We can detect if there is a hygiene problem based on the bacterial count. I think that’s the key reason why we see such better performance out of the beef industry. It’s the human element, and it goes to hygiene.”

Every Delay.  Every Bucket Change.  Multiplies Contamination

Timmermans explains that colostrum is a great culture media for iron-loving bacteria like Salmonella. “The producer may do everything perfectly, collecting that one gallon of colostrum, but then he lets it sit out in a bucket for three hours before he gets it fed to the calf” and bacterial levels explode.

What We All Know.  What we DON`T Always Do!

Cows have stronger, higher quality colostrum compared to heifers. It is important to feed one gallon of colostrum to Holsteins to make up for the differences in strength. (The stronger the colostrum, the more antibodies that it contains.)  A colostrometer can be used to determine the quality of colostrum. This will detect the poor quality of colostrum which should not be used.

Save Calf Lives, Sanitize

Dam’s udders should be cleaned and prepped with pre-dip before colostrum is harvested. Extra colostrum can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 7 days. Be sure to date the colostrum so that freshness can be ensured. Colostrum can be frozen for up to one year. Colostrum should be thawed out by placing the container in warm water. Microwaving colostrum will destroy the valuable antibodies present.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

Producers do a pretty good job of getting colostrum to the calf early.  Colostrum is the key to success, but you have to have the right combination of timing, quality and quantity.


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