I am sure most producers have read lots about colostrum management over the years. But, it never hurts to review the topic, and hopefully I can offer some practical tips to be used in the upcoming calving season.
The overall benefit of a newborn calf receiving adequate quantity and quality of colostrum cannot be overstated. The benefits to the calf the rest of its life is phenomenal and it is the single most important component to calf raising prior to weaning. This natural product is better than any drug, vaccine or supplement we could provide. Colostrum management is entirely in the hands of the producer. When we talk colostrum we are referring to only the first milking. In subsequent milkings the immunoglobulin levels decrease substantially. Even in well-managed operations approximately 25 per cent of the calves do not receive adequate colostrum.
To be effective, colostrum must be received in the first four to six hours of life. The guideline is for calves to receive at least 120 grams of immunoglobulins and most average colostrum contains 60 to 80 grams of immunoglobulins per liter. Calves therefore need 1 to two liters in those critical first six hours of life.
The concentration will generally be higher in multiparous cows, and dairy cattle will have more dilute colostrum because of the volume they produce. Nutrition such as vitamin E and Se supplementation effects both quality and quantity of colostrum. With thin, malnourished cows, it is no surprise will have poor quality colostrum. Vitamin E, for example, has several hundred times the concentration in colostrum as found in milk, so good nutrition of cows leads to good nutrition in the calves.
Protection against all diseases the cowherd has either been exposed to or vaccinated against will be passed on to their calves in the colostrum. The length of this protection to the calf will vary from two to four months for clostridials diseases (blackleg); to five to nine months for BVD. The average is about three to four months for all diseases, provided the cow had protection against them.
One of the most difficult things to determine is if a newborn calf has suckled adequately and drank enough colostrum. Producers can put tattoo ink on the cow’s udder or conversely on the calf’s nose to see if suckling has occurred. Many calves die yearly trying to nurse cows, which have blocked teats, blind teat canals, mastitis or other problems.
If you have a recently calved cow, it doesn’t hurt to strip the teats to make sure they are patent. If you are in doubt if a newborn calf has nursed adequately, give it supplemental colostrum. All twins and triplets definitely need supplemental colostrum. Some cows allow other calves to suckle them before they calve. In this instance their newborn will then need supplemental colostrum. If in doubt, supplement with more. It never hurts.
Always have an adequate store of colostrum on hand. Only save colostrum from first milking as it gets greatly diluted in subsequent milkings. This is especially true of dairy colostrum. It is best to save colostrum from heavy-milking cows on your own farm. If that is not possible good quality colostrum from reputable dairies, that vaccinate against the same diseases you do, is a good second choice. The spread of a few diseases like Johne’s or Bovine Leukosis is possible so be careful of your colostrum source. If the calf’s mother is in the maternity pen, strip her out then and administer the colostrum. There is confidence in knowing this and there will be no second-guessing yourself later.
There are a few good colostrum supplements, but there are also very many which are just supplements and don’t even come close to meeting the calves immunoglobulin needs. One company in Saskatoon (Saskatoon Colostrum Company) uses air dried colostrum from dairies in Saskatoon. The best product they carry supplies 80 grams of immunoglobulin levels, which is very close to a calves needs. If you plan to purchase a colostrum supplement, please consult your veterinarian first as there are many poor imitations out there with claims of being a colostrum substitute.
Colostrum can be kept fresh (refrigerated) for a few days. Immunoglobulins are very resistant to freezing and can be stored for at least one year. My recommendation is carry some over year-to-year, but the minute you secure fresh stock throw out last years. Once it is thawed it is best to throw it out, but some recent studies have shown the levels of immunoglobulins do not decrease much when freeze-thawing is repeated.
Always save colostrum from multiparous cows (three to four lactations) as their levels of immunoglobulins are about twice that of heifers, and hopefully the cows have been vaccinated for scours.
To freeze colostrum, large Ziploc bags hold about one litre and if laid flat to freeze, they thaw quicker because of the large surface area. Some people use ice cube trays and find the end result thaws quicker. Use either a hot water bath or the microwave set on defrost. It’s important to keep decanting off the thawing colostrum so it is not overheated. Extreme heat (60 to 70C) will denature the colostrum.
It was once thought feeding colostrum with an esophageal feeder was undesirable, as the first bit of milk gets deposited in the rumen. While I believe getting the sucking reflex is important to the calf, if a calf is unresponsive don’t be afraid to tube the colostrum in. Research shows calves fed through stomach tubes had as high protective levels of antibodies in their blood as those which had sucked. If you do use an esophageal feeder use one specifically for colostrum. By no means use a feeder used to treat scouring or sick calves. This is an ideal way to spread disease on your farm. In between calves, disinfect the tube feeder to minimize the threat of disease spread. Only freeze colostrum that looks thick and yellow.
Proper colostrum management will go leaps and bounds to improve the overall health of your herd. Use it frequently.
Roy Lewis is a practising large animal veterinarian at the Westlock Veterinary Center, north of Edmonton, AB. His main interests are bovine reproduction and herd health.