Tips for Feeding Colostrum to Your Calves

Angus cow with new calf
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The single, most important meal your calf will consume in its lifetime is the first feeding of colostrum. Here, the experts at SCCL share details on when and how to assist your calves with colostrum to ensure a successful calving season.

Which calves need a colostrum supplement or replacement?

There are many circumstances when you should feed a colostrum product. These can include very cold (or warm) weather, twin births, and calves born to first-calf heifers with poor mothering instinct and low quantity of colostrum; however, calves born with difficulty (also known as dystocia) are at the greatest risk for failure of passive transfer of immunity, since they are often slow to get up and suckle. Additionally, their ability to absorb antibodies may be compromised due to the delay of nursing and altered metabolic parameters. Whenever calves are born with intervention or assistance, the calf should always be given at least a supplemental dose of colostrum, if not a full replacement dose. Also, you should consider supplementing any calf that has not suckled within 1-2 hours of birth to get them started.

When should colostrum be fed?

With each minute that passes after birth, a calf’s ability to absorb antibodies is reduced. By 24 hours the gut is almost completely closed and can no longer absorb antibodies. Colostrum must be fed as soon as possible after birth, ideally within 1-2 hours. If bottle or tube feeding is necessary – when it is not possible to milk the cow immediately or get the calf up and suckling – a good quality colostrum supplement or replacer is an excellent alternative to ensure the calf receives a timely first meal. If colostrum has been delayed past 2 hours, feed larger amounts to compensate for reduced absorption.

How much colostrum do calves need?

When it comes to colostrum, research shows more is better. Most veterinarians now recommend calves receive at least 1 gallon or 4 liters of good quality colostrum, which should provide calves with 150-200g of IgG. New USDA National Animal Health Monitoring System recommendations suggest at least 200g IgG to achieve “excellent” passive transfer. Quality colostrum replacers can be used when the dam does not provide enough volume or where colostral quality and IgG concentration is low. A significant percentage of first-calf heifers produce only small volumes of colostrum, sometimes less than 1 liter, so their calves would benefit from a colostrum supplement or replacer.

Should cold weather calves be treated differently?

Calves have a thermal neutral zone of 59 to 77°F (15 to 25°C), and calves are often born into conditions much colder than this. Calves need a timely feeding of colostrum to warm them by providing energy to shiver and thermoregulate. Colostrum contains unique colostral fat that initiates metabolism of brown fat stores which fuels the calf’s internal furnace for heat and energy to get up, suckle, stay warm and stay alive.

Can I use colostrum from my cows, and if so, how?

Herd colostrum can be used to supplement calves of other dams, but to be done right, it is a demanding process. Colostrum should be collected with sanitized equipment within 2 hours of birth. Then, it should be tested with a refractometer or hydrometer to measure quality; only colostrum that meets parameters consistent with high IgG levels should be used. The colostrum should be cooled in small 1L or less containers as quickly as possible since bacteria numbers double every 20 minutes. Then, the colostrum should be stored either in a refrigerator for no more than 48 hours or frozen for no more than a year. Avoid freezing and thawing repeatedly as this may reduce the quality and life span of colostrum. It is unwise to use colostrum from neighboring dairy farms as this is a risk for introducing disease agents into the herd, even from farms using an on-farm pasteurizer.

What should I look for in a colostrum product?

The most effective colostrum products are derived from bovine colostrum. Examine ingredient labels carefully. Most products are made from various sources and include a formula of proteins and fats from these sources. Colostrum-based products contain all the immune, metabolic and growth factors naturally found in maternal colostrum. As previously stated, one crucial ingredient is colostral fat, which is essential for activating brown fat metabolism, an important energy source required by the calf immediately after birth. Products that contain blood or whey with added vegetable and animal fats not naturally found in colostrum do not provide the same benefits for the calf, and some of these products contain no actual colostrum at all. Look for products that are regulated by the USDA and backed by numerous safety and efficacy studies published in scientific journals.

How do good colostrum feeding practices impact long-term productivity?

The financial benefits of good colostrum feeding practices due to improvements on tangible production parameters are often overlooked. Ensuring proper colostrum intake can improve average daily gain, improved health with reduced treatment and more efficient feed conversion. Lastly, a calf that does not achieve passive transfer of immunity is four times more likely to die, and mortality has extremely negative impacts on bottom line.

What colostrum products are available through GENEX?

GENEX offers an array of colostrum products to meet your needs whether feeding a full replacer or a supplement. Calf’s Choice Total® HiCal colostrumCalf’s Choice Total® Gold colostrumPureStart™ colostrum and Genesis colostrumare available online or through your GENEX representative.

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