Our previous article described the factors that affect a newborn calf’s ability to gain the benefits of colostrum.  When everything goes according to plan, that calf will get up and drink his full dose of colostrum from his mother.  But what if that doesn’t happen?  When should we intervene and feed the calf colostrum ourselves? 

Cattle producers commonly encounter several reasons why feeding a calf colostrum might be necessary:

  • When the calf is born as a result of dystocia (difficult calving).  Often these calves have low blood oxygen and are not as apt to get up and nurse on their own. 
  • When the calf is clearly weak and unable to get up on his own.
  • When the mother won’t let the calf nurse.
  • When the cow’s udder has poor conformation, making it difficult for a calf to nurse for the first time.
  • When the cow is not producing milk (lack of fill in the udder) or is affected by mastitis.
  • When the cow has been leaking milk before calving. 

If a calf can’t nurse its mother, the second best method to supply calves colostrum is through a nipple bottle.  However, unless these at-risk calves are aggressive nursers, they may not be able to consume enough colostrum fast enough through bottle feeding.  In those cases, tube feeding colostrum is necessary.   Nursing its mother is the preferred way for a calf to ingest colostrum, and has been associated with higher levels of antibody absorption.  Second best is nursing from a bottle, followed by tube feeding. 

By far, the best thing to feed newborn calves is the colostrum from their own mother.  In those cases where cows produce little or no colostrum, alternatives need to be considered, listed here in order of preference:

  1. Fresh colostrum from another cow in your herd.  If a cow has calved within the past 24 hours (and preferably the past 8 hours), colostrum from this cow can be used.  Cows with full-term stillborn calves present an opportunity for producers to save and freeze their colostrum for emergency situations such as this. 
  2. Frozen colostrum from another cow in the herd (see above).  Colostrum can be frozen and stored for up to one year.  If it is warmed up slowly, there is minimal loss of antibodies.  The freezing process destroys white blood cells in colostrum that may help the immune system, so fresh colostrum is preferable to frozen when available. 
  3. Fresh colostrum from a cow in another herd.  While some beef producers have access to colostrum from neighboring farms, especially dairies, there are several reasons to approach this choice with caution. Some infectious diseases such as Johne’s Disease and mycoplasmosis can be transmitted to calves through unpasteurized colostrum.  Colostrum is a good growth medium for bacteria if it is not collected and stored properly.  Finally, remember that dairy cow colostrum generally has a lower antibody concentration than beef cow colostrum, so adjusting the amount fed upward is a good idea (e.g. using 6 quarts total vs. 4).  Knowing the health status of the source herd for your colostrum is critical.  If wrong choices are made, they can affect your herd for years to come.
  4. Frozen colostrum from a cow in another herd.
  5. Colostrum replacers.  Colostrum replacers are excellent tools to have handy in case of emergencies.  These are powdered mixes that contain a full dose of antibodies for the calf (100 to 125 grams per dose).  While they do not contain the white blood cells and immune substances that “real” colostrum does, they also do not carry the possibility of infectious disease.  Colostrum replacers need to be mixed completely according to label directions, and tend to be expensive compared to colostrum supplements (below). 
  6. Colostrum supplements.  In contrast to colostrum replacers, supplements do not contain a full dose of antibodies for the calf, often only 40 to 50 grams.  As such, these products should be used in cases when it’s questionable whether a calf consumed his full dose of colostrum.  These products are less expensive than colostrum replacers.  Many products that are marketed as “colostrum supplements” contain no antibodies at all.  Look for the level of “globulin protein” or “IgG” on the label to tell you. 

There are many factors that influence the health of a baby calf, and one of the most important is the amount of colostrum a calf gets in his first few hours of life.  Your local veterinarian is the best source for answers to questions about colostrum, products, and feeding issues. 

Reference:  Besser TE, Gay CC. 1994. The importance of colostrum to the health of the neonatal calf.  Vet Clin NA, 10:107-117.