It is well understood that timely and adequate consumption of colostrum is critically important for newborn calves. Bovine antibodies are not readily transferred across the placenta but rather are concentrated in the udder as colostrum during late gestation. Therefore, calves are born almost completely unprotected from infectious disease and must ingest colostrum in order to receive passive immunity from the dam. To ensure adequate absorption, calves must receive colostrum within the first 24 hours of life. As calves age, the intestines lose the ability to absorb large molecules like the IgG antibody proteins.
Because there is significant variability in calf birth weight, colostrum concentration, volume of colostrum produced, etc. it is difficult to make definitive recommendations regarding the exact dose and timing of colostrum to ensure calf health. Common rules of thumb suggest that beef calves should receive approximately 6 to 10% of body weight in colostrum within the first 24 hours of life with approximately 2-3 quarts ingested during the first 12 hours of life. Ideally, calves would ingest approximately 2 quarts of high quality colostrum within the first 4 to 6 hours of life and an additional 1-2 quarts by approximately 12 hours of age.
Ideally, newborn calves would receive some TLC from the dam, stand within the first hour or so after birth, and immediately find a teat to suckle a nice healthy dose of rich colostrum. We all know, however, that calving season can be full of challenges and surprises: dystocia, weak calves, chilled calves, poor mothers, lack of colostrum production, and a host of other challenges that can disrupt the ideal. So what do we do to provide colostrum when these challenges occur?
Mother’s milk is almost always best! If possible, help the calf nurse or milk out the dam to tube/bottle feed the newborn. Heifers may not offer the quantity or quality necessary and calves born to heifers may require colostrum supplementation or several small feedings offered as more colostrum is let down and made available by the young dam.
If the problem is insufficient colostrum production by the dam or if it is not possible to milk the dam for any reason, the second best option may be to use fresh or frozen colostrum from another cow. Mature, healthy, well-vaccinated cows within the same herd would be the best choices for colostrum donors. When compared to heifers, mature cows produce colostrum that is more abundant and more concentrated. Healthy, well-vaccinated cows will be less likely to transmit disease and more likely to offer protective antibodies through colostrum. Finally, to minimize biosecurity risk, it is always advisable to use colostrum from cows within your herd.
Colostrum can be frozen and stored for use at a later time. It is usually recommended to freeze in one or two quart zip-top freezer bags or freezer-safe containers. Care must be taken to thaw appropriately as excessive heat, uneven heating, freeze/thaw cycles, etc. can damage antibodies in colostrum. The best method for thawing is to place the frozen bag or container in a warm water bath (110 degrees F) and stir every five minutes, continuing until the colostrum reaches 104 degrees F. This thawing process takes approximately 40 minutes.
Beef producers are sometimes interested in obtaining frozen colostrum from dairy operations that regularly freeze and store colostrum. When considering this option it is important to remember two potential issues. First, colostrum of dairy cows is much less concentrated than that of beef cows so it will require a greater volume to impart the same immunity if using diary-derived colostrum. Additionally, several infectious diseases are more prevalent in dairies than in beef operations and when using dairy-derived colostrum, biosecurity has to be a concern. At a minimum, you should be confident that all stored/frozen colostrum is free of blood, mastitis organisms, Johne’s disease, and fecal contamination.
Numerous commercial products are available to replace or supplement maternal colostrum. Most colostrum products are manufactured using bovine colostrum or bovine serum as sources of IgG. Commercial colostrum products are generally labeled as either colostrum supplements or colostrum replacements.
Colostrum supplements generally have less than 100 g of IgG per dose and are meant to be used as a supplement to maternal colostrum. Given alone, colostrum supplements lack the IgG concentration necessary to prevent failure of passive transfer and they lack the necessary nutritional components to ensure calf survival and health. Colostrum supplements can be very useful to offer additional colostrum when the calf receives some maternal colostrum but concentration or volume offered by the dam is insufficient.
Colostrum replacements generally have greater than 100 g of IgG per dose and are meant to be used as a replacement when maternal colostrum is completely unavailable. Colostrum replacements are also formulated to supply the necessary nutrients required by the calf. Colostrum replacements are more expensive because they are more concentrated with antibodies and nutrients but may be worth the investment if you have to completely replace maternal colostrum.
Several products are available that provide antibodies against only specific organisms. For example, a product might provide antibodies against E. coli. Such a product may boost passive immunity against E. coli and thus help to prevent scours but may do little else for the overall health of the calf. These products can be very useful in certain situations but cannot be expected to function as true colostrum. Read labels carefully to completely understand ingredients and purposes of specific products.
It is recommended that you use a product licensed by the USDA and that you carefully read and follow label directions to ensure proper use. Spring calving is not far away. It may be time to think ahead and come up with a plan for colostrum supplementation and colostrum replacement so that should the need arise, you will be fully prepared.