Colostrum essential for newborn calves |

Colostrum essential for newborn calves

Terryn Drieling
for Tri-State Livestock News
Calves born without assistance have been shown to stand and nurse within 40 minutes of birth. Photo by Terryn Drieling

Colostrum is sometimes known as “liquid gold” and with good reason. Aside from its golden hue, colostrum is worth its weight in gold when it comes to a calf’s lifelong success. Necessary in providing crucial passive immunity, colostrum also provides the calories a newborn calf needs to get a good start after birth and sets the stage for the calf’s long-term performance.

Research from the US Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center, Nebraska showed that calves receiving inadequate passive immunity had six times greater risk of illness within the first 28 days after birth and five times greater risk of death prior to weaning.

When is a colostrum replacement necessary?

According the University of Nebraska, Lincoln there are a handful of occasions when it is best to err on the side of caution and give a calf a colostrum substitute either in place of, or in addition to, maternal colostrum. These instances include:

Difficult calving

Calves that experience difficult birth or an assisted birth are slower to stand and nurse than those that require no assistance. As a result, a colostrum replacer or maternal colostrum through a bottle should be given to the calf as soon after birth as possible.

“Any time we have to assist a cow with delivery, we milk her and give her calf a bottle of colostrum. We figure the calf has already had a tough go and we want to make sure we’re doing all we can to set them up for success,” said Nebraska rancher, Tom Drieling.

Severe weather conditions

Cold-stressed calves are less likely to get up and nurse. In addition, cold-stressed cows may have the ability to produce high-quality colostrum.

“We will go ahead and give a cold calf one dose of colostrum replacement in addition to the colostrum the calf nursed from the cow,” said Lacy Hebbert, Hebbert Charolais Hyannis, Nebraska.

Thin cows

Nutrition directly effects colostrum production and quality. Concentration of immunoglobulins (IgG), fat, protein, and other necessary nutrients in colostrum decrease right along with body condition.

First-calf heifers

First-calf heifers are more likely to lack maternal instinct (necessary in allowing their calves to nurse) and colostrum quality and quantity as compared with mature cows.

“Giving a colostrum replacer in these situations can help increase the 24 IgG levels in calves. It also helps the calves gain back some of the energy they lose during birth,” said Dr. Zach Adam, DVM at Hyannis Veterinary Service.

What to look for in a good colostrum replacer

According to Dr. Adam, the two most important things to check for when choosing a colostrum replacer are the amount of fat and the concentration of IgG.

“To be as close to maternal colostrum as possible, a replacer should have at least 16% fat and 100 grams of IgG,” Dr. Adam said.

In addition, Dr. Adam encourages ranchers to look at where the fat is coming from.

“Calves need the calories to stay warm and help replace the calories they burn during birth. Some colostrum replacers with have high levels of fat but it comes from vegetable. For the best results, look for a replacer with high levels of colostral fat. The replacer we recommend to our clients has 100 grams of IgG and 23 percent fat, all of which comes from colostral fat,” Dr. Adam said.

Replacer versus supplement

As a general rule, calves need at least two quarts of high-quality colostrum to get enough passive immunity and the nutrients necessary to succeed. There are both colostrum replacers and supplements on the market today and there is a difference between the two. Knowing when to reach for the replacer and when to reach for the supplement can be key in setting a calf up for long-term success.

“A supplement typically only contains 50 grams of IgG, whereas a replacer will have 100 grams. A supplement should be used to help give the calf a boost rather than in place of maternal colostrum,” Dr. Adam said.

In the event that a calf will receive no maternal colostrum, a replacer and not a supplement should be given. It is important to note that absorption of the fats and passive immunity from the IgG’s hinges on proper mixing, water temperature and administration of both replacers and supplements. For best results when using a replacer or a supplement, read and follow all package and label instructions.

The alternatives

While there are some home recipes that can be used to give a calf an electrolyte or energy boost, there are no home recipes that can take the place of maternal colostrum or a colostrum replacer. However, there are methods to use maternal colostrum as the replacer.

“When the opportunity presents itself, we will milk out a cow who’s lost a calf and freeze her colostrum to keep on hand for future use,” Drieling said.

According to Dr. Adam, Drieling’s method taken one step further can provide more stored maternal colostrum for other calves in the herd.

“If you’ve had to assist a cow, you can milk her out and freeze whatever colostrum is left after you’ve given her calf at least two quarts,” said Dr. Adam.