Colostrum is one of the most important factors when promoting the health of new born calves. The first milk given by the dam is packed with immunoglobins, white blood cells, nutrients and antibodies to assist the newborn develop a working, sustainable digestive and immune system. A new born calf’s gut is a sterile environment, containing virtually no bacteria. This changes quickly after birthing as countless strains of bacteria, good and bad (pathogenic), assault the animal. Bacteria are everywhere, and although a clean birthing station is extremely valuable, no farm environment is perfect and you can count on your calf getting exposed to multiple species of pathogens- each of which can cause major health issues if left unchecked. By promoting immunity, colostrum is the number one tool you have to give your new borns a chance against these pathogens.
Preventing illness due to pathogens is the primary reason for giving colostrum; but every year more studies are published relating colostrum and animal performance throughout their lives. Calves fed colostrum at birth have shown drastically improved rates of gain versus calves which received no colostrum. The volume of colostrum fed has also been a hot topic of discussion. Some is better than none but new stats have shown the value of feeding 4 liters vs. 2 liters of colostrum at birth. During one observation the calves fed 4 liters gained over a half pound of weight per day more than the calves only fed 2 liters. It is safe to say that animals fed colostrum at birth will not only be healthier than their counterparts, but more productive and profitable during their lifetime.
At a trade show in Wisconsin, a man was browsing the products at the booth I was working. A co-worker made the mistake of assuming he was a dairyman and asked what type of milking equipment he used on his farm. Without looking up from the table he quickly responded “it’s called a calf”, after which he informed us that he raised beef cattle and we learned a lesson in assumptions. But he did bring up a good point, that the calf is the original milking machine and most beef calves get their colostrum directly from the source: quickly, and in good quantities. Space this out over a few feedings, and counting on the mother producing good quality product, you end up with great antibody and imunoglobin transfer from mother to calf. However, this is not an accepted, profitable, nor recommended way for dairy producers to ensure their calves are getting colostrum. You should always remove the dairy calf from its mother as soon as possible.
Ideally each calf will receive 2-4 liters of colostrum collected from its own mother within hours of its birth. This is not always possible as many dams either do not produce enough colostrum or it is of poor quality and should not be used. To prepare for these cases, many producers have begun to freeze excess colostrum to use at later dates. An unavoidable side effect of freezing colostrum is that it will destroy a significant amount of the white blood cells, lowering the end products total effectiveness. Another side effect of freezing is the rampant growth of pathogenic bacteria leading up to full freeze. Colostrum is a breeding ground for bacteria, which is why the sooner it is fed after collection, the better. But if you are going to freeze- make sure to do it quickly. The best method is to use large, sealable bags which can be flattened in the freezer resulting in a quicker freeze through. Using pails is not ideal, as it can take a very long time for the center of the pail to freeze, resulting in elevated pathogen levels. The benefits of maternal colostrum over non maternal should also be noted as non-maternal white blood cells in the colostrum seldom survive long in the calf, resulting in less immunity.
In the last few years there has been a swelling in the number of colostrum replacers and supplements introduced to the market. Many of these products got their start in herds with high cases of Johne’s as a way to suppress transference of this disease to young stock. Today many producers use these products on a regular basis with some very good results. Colostrum replacers are used by themselves as a complete alternative to actual colostrum; they should contain no less than 100 grams of globulin protein and products with 130-150 grams are recommended. Colostrum supplements are added to colostrum where the quality is in question; such as a first time heifer (older cattle tend to pass along more imunoglobins than younger animals). These products work by boosting the globulin protein levels in the natural colostrum, usually adding between 45-60 grams per dose.
Regardless of your management practices concerning colostrum, remember that giving something is better than doing nothing. And make no assumptions- calves are our future, and should be given every opportunity possible to become the healthy, productive animals we need them to be.