Colostrum: The Elixir of Life
Are your calves getting enough colostrum?
Authored by Dallas Duncan-Meteer, DVM, Mt. Sterling Veterinary Clinic for University of Illinois
Ensuring adequate colostrum intake is one of the single most important factors in producing healthy, profitable cattle. Calves are born essentially without antibodies to organisms that cause disease. Calves must rely on the dam to provide them with colostrum containing immunoglobulins. Immunoglobulins are necessary for the immune system to respond to pathogens and fight disease. Colostrum is high in energy, fat, vitamins A and D, white blood cells, and growth factors. Many veterinarians refer to colostrum as the elixir of life.
Not only is it crucial for a calf to receive colostrum, but the timing in which they receive the colostrum as well as the quality and the quantity they consume is important.
Beef calves should suck within the first 2 hours of birth. It is absolutely crucial that the calf consumes at least 2 quarts of colostrum within the first 6 hours of life and an additional 2 quarts by 12 hours of birth. The reasoning for this is that the bovine gut no longer absorbs adequate colostral antibodies after about 12 hours of life.
Large and lethargic calves can make meeting this timeline challenging without intervention. Calves that do not get up and suck on their own need to be tube fed colostrum within 2-4 hours of life. Calves under 75 pounds needs 2-3 quarts and calves over 75 pounds need 3-4 quarts.
A good indicator of colostrum quality is the cow's body condition score (BCS). BCS prior to calving is a good indicator of colostrum quality. Heifers should score a BCS of 6.5 to 7 and cows a BCS of 5.5-6. Colostrum quality can also be assessed with commercial kits available through your veterinarian. This can be a very useful tool for producers to ensure their cattle are producing good quality colostrum.
If a cow has inadequate quality or quantity of colostrum, one of the first things a producer can do is to administer 1 mL of oxytocin to enhance the "let down" of additional colostrum. If this does not work then a producer is left with 2 options, use frozen colostrum or purchase dry, powdered colostrum.
Freezing colostrum to have on hand is a useful practice if performed appropriately. Only take colostrum from cows and heifers that lost their calf for non-infectious reasons or take less than 500mL from multiple healthy cows at time of calving. Do not take more than 500 mL as it would be counterproductive to rob one calf to feed another. The colostrum should be frozen in plastic bags to be thawed easily.
Thawing of colostrum must be done in a manner that does not compromise the antibodies. The best way to thaw colostrum is by using warm water at a temperature of 102 degrees F. Overheating kills the antibodies so never boil to warm up. Microwaves are hard to predict and hard to measure the temperature the colostrum is being heated to. Thus, avoid microwaves as they make it easy to accidentally overheat the colostrum. Once you have killed the antibodies there is no way to go back. I find the best way is placing the plastic bag of colostrum in a warm water bath and letting it thaw.
If you believe your calves are receiving adequate quantities of colostrum but you are still fighting significant disease then you might consider testing your calves for passive transfer. Testing numerous calves to assess their immunoglobulin levels can be useful in determining how to fix calf herd health issues. At 2-10 days of age, a veterinarian can draw blood from calves to evaluate their total protein or immunoglobulin G. Research has proven that calves that do not receive appropriate levels of quality colostrum are significantly more likely to die before they reach market. They are more susceptible to calf scours, respiratory issues, and bovine respiratory disease in the feedlot setting.
Attention to colostrum can have great return to your farm. It is a vital component to producing healthy, high quality beef. Calves failing to get adequate quality or quantity of colostrum can be silently lowering your herd performance and health status. Now is a good time to have a discussion with your veterinarian or extension specialist about how your can improve your calf health.