Don’t be puzzled by colostrum |

Don’t be puzzled by colostrum

Rhonda Sedgwick Stearns
for Tri-State Livestock News
The first few hours can be the difference between a healthy, profitable calf and one that struggles health-wise. Making sure they not only have access to colostrum, but get enough of it, is crucual to building up a calf's immune system. Staff photo.

Now, about that maze--perusing any vet supply shelf in your favorite store will offer endless liquids, powders, gels and pills. No doubt some of you have already used some of them, probably with good results.

What’s in them?

For instance, MannaPro, which claims to be the “best mixing colostrum supplement on the market,” and appears unique in that it is “good for calves, foals, goat kids, lambs, baby pigs, crias, fawns, elk calves, kittens and puppies,” contains the following: “Dried whey protein concentrate, dried whey product, animal fat (preserved with BHA, BHT, citric acid & ethoxyquin), dried whey, dried milk, calcium carbonate, dicalcium phosphate, maltodextrin, DL-methionine, artificial flavor, vitamin E supplement, ascorbic acid, taurine, zinc sulfate, niacin supplement, vitamin A supplement, sodium silico aluminate, ferrous sulfate, biotin, magnesium sulfate, choline chloride, vitamin B12 supplement, calcium pantothenate, manganese sulfate, vitamin D3 supplement, mineral oil, sodium selenite, riboflavin supplement, calcium iodate, menadione sodium bisulfite complex (source of vitamin K activity), thiamine mononitrate, folic acid, pyridoxine hydrochloride, cobalt sulfate, silicon dioxide.”

The terms “stress” and “calving” are synonymous this time of year, or whatever time of year your cows start dropping those little hide-wrapped bags of gold around the pasture. Perhaps the best we can hope for is to corral all the stress on the human side of the fence by doing everything possible to prevent it in the newborns.

How we manage that has changed a lot since I watched Mom pull a pitcher of our milk cow’s fresh product from the fridge, stir the thick cream back down into it and pour a couple cups into an aluminum pan on the hot stove. She’d stir in some dark Karo syrup, a couple raw eggs and a half cup of Jack Daniels as it was warming, funnel it into an old whiskey bottle and cap it with a black lamb nipple for Dad tor me to administer to a slow-starting or chilled-down calf. They were usually up, bucking and bawling before long.

It was good stuff, but it lacked the strongest, most important life-preserver all babies need colostrum—the mechanism Mother Nature uses to transfer important immune and growth factors and nutrients from cow to calf right after birth. The Saskatoon Colostrum Company says “Calves are born without any immune function, and obtaining that immune function requires delivery of very clean, very standardized stabilized colostrum.” If, for any reason, a mother doesn’t quickly impart that precious commodity into their digestive system, the task falls to you.

Synertek, a colostrum-for-humans company reports, “Colostrum is one of the most extensively studied substances on the planet with over 7,000 published studies.” In today’s high-tech world there are so many available options for calves that choosing the best and administering it correctly may feel like navigating a maze.

Jerry and Anita Shepperson, who ranch near Upton, Wyoming, avoid such confusion by sticking with the “real thing” – milking fresh colostrum whenever possible and freezing it to meet future demands.

Jerry said, “Our milk cow is gonna freshen pretty soon, before we’re due to start calving, so we’ll store up some of her colostrum and hope that’ll see us through. We’ve even had neighbors call up and ask for some, and we’ve told ‘em to come over and get it. We sometimes get through calving and have a little left over that we have to throw out.”

Many studies back up Jerry’s approach, concluding that high-quality maternal colostrum is still the “gold standard” for a newborn. Dr. David Sudbrink of Salt Creek Veterinarian Clinic at Newcastle, Wyoming, says in his opinion if your cows are healthy, vigorous, in good condition and mothering the calf so that it nursed soon after birth, you’re wasting your money to use a colostrum supplement.

Modern technology and research prove all colostrum was not created equal, whether straight from the cow or the ranch supply store. The most important ingredient seems to be the antibody Immunoglobin G – IgG for short. Human research from Johns Hopkins proves IgG is the most common type of antibody, making up as much as 80 percent of all the antibodies in the blood; antibodies which are very important in fighting bacterial and viral infections.

Failure of Passive Transfer

Most studies agree more than 50 grams of IgG per liter of milk is desirable for a newborn. The Saskatoon Colostrum Company explains that level of richness is necessary to create the highest possible level of IgG in the calf’s blood, which prevents “Failure of Passive Transfer” or FPT.

Nature allows a very short time for absorption of colostral ingredients from the intestine into the blood, but the results can be lifelong. FPT occurs when a calf has less than 10g of IgG per liter of blood (<10g/L) when it is 24 to 36 hours of age. Saskatoon’s researchers tell us, “Calves that have FPT are much more susceptible to becoming ill and dying than calves with serum IgG levels above 10g/L. Research has also shown that calves with even higher serum IgG levels have higher long term productivity, including weight gain and milk production as adults, and also lower culling rates.”

The Golden Window

Time is probably the single most important factor in boosting that new calf into good health. A South Dakota Department of Veterinary Science study says, “After twenty-four hours, a calf’s ability to absorb immunoglobulin decreases dramatically, so it is important that calves ingest and absorb an ample amount of colostrum soon after birth.”

Sudbrink says, “What it all boils down to is what happens right after that calf hits the ground. The golden window for colostrum intake is about twelve hours, and after six hours passes the opportunity for the calf to benefit most begins to decline.”

An especially important point Sudbrink makes is that once a calf nurses at all, or you administer any colostrum at all, that “golden window” begins to decrease. This means that if you have a calf born to a weak, malnourished or immature mom that’s not making good milk, it’s better to prevent any nursing at all for up to six hours if you can then get a half gallon of high quality colostrum into the calf. To clarify and emphasize that, he says, “It’s more detrimental–you’re turning against yourself –if you allow the calf to suck even a half cup of poor colostrum from his mother soon after birth. Better to prevent any nursing and give it a half gallon of high IgG product within the first six hours.”

Naturally, the ideal is to have cows in optimal health and well nourished before they calve so they can produce and transfer strong colostrum to their newborn. Reasons a new mother might not produce and transfer that could include short age, nutritional stress, a poor immune status or a genetic focus on quantity over quality in milk production.

The fake stuff

But what if you do need colostrum replacement? Or colostrum supplement? A 2013 South Dakota State University Extension study stresses that producers need to understand the differences in these products based on their formulations and how to use them for optimum results.

Products are divided into supplements and replacements, and are classified by their ability to raise plasma IgG concentrations. Colostrum supplements do not raise the plasma concentration above the species standard of 10 grams per liter, while replacement products do.

The USDA Center for Veterinary Biologics regulates colostrum products containing IgG. In general, products that contain less than 100 grams IgG/dose are categorized as colostrum supplements, and are designed to be used when feeding low or medium quality colostrum.

Sudbrink says Salt Creek Vet Clinic carries a product upon which his research is anecdotal, not scientific, just from finding out “what’s tried and true on the ranch”. His recommendation is “If a calf is born overnight, if you don’t know if it stood or if it nursed, you have a couple options. If you can afford it and have some replacement on hand, use it. And even if the calf didn’t get good colostrum from the cow, a live calf in the fall, even with a compromised immune system and lower rate of gain, is better than no calf at all.

“If you have a high value calf you think has passed the 12-hour window for colostrum absorption, definitely involve your vet with some blood transfusions, serum transfusions, etc.” he said.

A 2001-2002 study of more than 200 beef herds in western Canada resulted in strong suggestions that “beef producers should aim to maximize passive transfer and optimize the protective health benefits of colostrum.” Some helpful ideas in that direction include the discovery that, “Calves born in herds where producers routinely administered combined selenium and vitamin E injections had substantially lower odds of receiving treatment and of dying than did calves born into herds not using this management intervention. Selenium is an essential micronutrient that works with vitamin E to protect cell membranes.” The Canadian researchers further noted, “Their role in immune protection and in beef cow and calf health are becoming increasingly recognized…Vitamin E does not cross the placenta, making calves dependent on vitamin E from colostrum…Selenium readily crosses the placenta and is also available to calves in colostrum.”

R.C. Donaldson at True Ranches LAK Ranch along the Wyoming/South Dakota border says they’re using a “fairly new product” with their February-calving first-calf-heifers this year. He happily reports, “It seems to be working well.”

That product is Genesis 50 Colostrum Replacer and Supplement, by Nurture. It comes packaged in a bio-secure, easy-to-feed “Perfect Udder” bag, complete with a screw-on nipple. After adding warm water to the preprinted fill line on the bag and shaking it gently, the liquid is ready to feed as soon as the nipple is screwed on in place of the original cap.

Jim and Lisa Darlington, who ranch on Lodge Pole Creek west of Newcastle, Wyoming say the little tubes of Nursemate have been handiest if they ever needed a quick fix on a slow-starting calf. “They always seemed to do alright with it, we never had any bad effects. We also keep a bag of Colostrx around,” Jim added. He says they try to feed the Colostrx with a bottle first, but resorts to tubing the calf if necessary.

Frank Eathorne, who ranches between Douglas and Gillette, Wyoming says he doesn’t start calving until after mid-May, and has never found a calf needing a colostrum boost.

Fourth-generation Nebraska rancher and Longhorn breeder Judy Durnal of Chimney Rock chuckles that her grandfather insisted on Peppermint Schnapps rather than Jack Daniels in the Durnal recipe milk-Karo-egg calf-starter, possibly because it suited the “doctor’s” taste better. Judy believes in cultivating fertility and motherhood genetics in her red and black Angus, and it’s always been there in the Longhorns. She says, “Make sure your cow is in damned good shape, and she’ll take care of ‘em.” Even in February’s wet, cold weather she declares, “I haven’t had to take one into the barn. The cows are getting them up quickly and often to nurse.”