Greg Lardy: Colostrum is vitally important for newborns |

Greg Lardy: Colostrum is vitally important for newborns

In a few short weeks, calving season will be in full swing throughout the northern Great Plains.

Colostrum is the first milk produced by the cow following parturition and it contains immunoglobulins which are vital to the development of an active immune system in newborn calves. It is also an important source of nutrients for the newborn calf. It is higher in fat and protein than milk produced later in lactation and plays a vital role in nutrition, thriftiness and survival of the newborn calf.

Colostrum contains approximately 22 percent solids compared to approximately 12 percent in normal milk. In addition to the immunoglobulins, colostrum contains increased levels of protein, lactose, fat, vitamins A and E, and minerals. These nutrients represent a very important source (read – the only source) of nutrients for the newborn calf. In addition to providing nutrients necessary for growth and development, they are also vital for survival in the sometimes harsh conditions we call winter!

Timing of colostrum intake is very important. When the calf is born, its gut is “open,” meaning that the gut can easily absorb large, complex proteins such as immunoglobulins. However, the process of closure begins almost immediately after birth; and by the time the calf is 24 hours old, the ability to absorb immunoglobulins is substantially reduced. Eventually the gut closes completely and it can no longer absorb these important proteins. Normal digestion processes begin to take place, and proteins are broken down into amino acids for absorption.

A number of factors influence the amount of colostrum produced by the cow. Mature cows produce more colostrum than heifers. Dairy breeds produce more volume than beef breeds, but colostrum from dairy cows typically has lower concentrations of immunoglobulins. When cows don’t produce an adequate amount of colostrum, it may be necessary to supplement what they produce with colostrum from another source. Colostrum from cows within your own herd is the best source as these animals have typically been exposed to the same disease challenges as the calf you are trying to feed.

Here are a few tips regarding the use of supplemental colostrum.

• Handling and storing colostrum: For optimum results, colostrum should be collected from cows within 24 hours of calving and fed fresh; however, colostrum can be collected at calving, stored frozen, and used at a later date as well. To make storage and thawing easier, you can store colostrum in Ziploc® bags, Serving Savers®, or empty one liter plastic pop or water bottles. These types of containers are easy to store in the freezer and easy to label. They also make thawing individual “servings” of colostrum easier. Colostrum should not be thawed and refrozen as the proteins can be damaged in the process.

• Thawing colostrum: The antibodies and immunoglobulins in colostrum are protein and they can be damaged by excessive heat during thawing. It is important to thaw colostrum slowly to prevent the proteins from being damaged. Two suggested methods of thawing colostrum are:

1. Place frozen colostrum and its container in warm water (110° F.). Gently agitate or stir the colostrum every five minutes until the colostrum reaches 104-110° F.

2. Place frozen colostrum and its container in a microwave oven. Set the microwave to no more than 60 percent power. Agitate or stir the colostrum frequently to ensure even thawing and warming. This is important since many microwaves do not heat material evenly. Warm the colostrum to 104-110° F. Feeding cold colostrum costs the calf significant amounts of energy to raise the temperature of the ingested material to their body temperature. This is energy the calf cannot afford to lose at this stage of its life.

• Amount of colostrum required: Calves should receive at least one quart of colostrum immediately after birth and another two to three quarts within the next 12 hours of life. This is one of the reasons why it is so important for calves to be healthy and vigorous at birth. Weak calves or those who experience a difficult birth take longer to stand and nurse, causing them to miss precious time for colostrum absorption before the gut closes.

As a general rule of thumb, a calf should receive five to six percent of its body weight in colostrum within the first six hours of life. That same amount should be fed again when the calf is about 12 hours old. Colostrum weighs approximately eight pounds per gallon. For an 80-pound calf, this equates to approximately two quarts (four pounds) of colostrum per feeding. Calves who are weak or experienced dystocia may not take this much at one feeding. You may need to split the amount into several feedings in order to get the calf to consume the necessary amount.

• Commercial colostrum supplements: A number of commercial colostrum substitutes are available. Research studies on these products conducted at various universities have shown that calves that received these products were healthier than those that received no colostrum at all. However, calves did not receive the same level of protection they would have if they had consumed fresh colostrum or frozen, stored colostrum.

• Biosecurity: Johne’s disease (Myobacterium paratuberculosis) can be spread to your herd through infected colostrum. If you are using supplemental colostrum from someone else’s herd, be sure the herd from which you got it has been tested and is free of Johne’s disease.

Colostrum is a vital source of immunoglobulins and nutrients for newborn calves. By remembering a few simple tips, you’ll be able to more successfully manage colostrum in your cowherd this spring and ensure more healthy calves.

Best of luck with calving.