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4 Ways to Enhance Cow Colostrum Before Calving

4 Ways to Enhance Cow Colostrum Before Calving

Cows receive the majority of their nutrients from forage. But forage quality and quantity vary vastly depending on region, geography, rainfall and time of year. These forage quality differences can impact colostrum quality.

During gestation, especially late gestation, cows have a greater demand for nutrients as they develop over 75% of their unborn calf.

Cows in late gestation have increased energy requirements by 25% and protein requirements by 10%. Additionally, the cow’s demand for trace and macro minerals all ramp up.

Suppose forage quality cannot sustain cows’ additional energy and mineral requirements during late gestation. In that case, cows will begin to lose body condition quickly, and studies show colostrum quality and quantity follow, which can have long-lasting effects on the health and performance of calves.

Four Ways to Increase Colostrum Quality at Calving:

1. Add trace minerals

Research shows cows supplemented with adequate and available sources of zinc (Zn), manganese (Mn), and copper (Cu) saw increased concentrations of immunoglobulins (antibodies) in colostrum and reduced calf mortality in cows fed organic trace minerals compared to inorganic-supplemented cows.

While it’s proven that trace minerals can help improve colostrum quality, they’re a lot harder to feed your herd than one might think.

Trace mineral source, intake level and antagonists (minerals that hinder the absorption of other minerals) can all get in the way of minerals being effectively absorbed by the animal.

The best trace mineral sources can effectively bypass the rumen but still be bioavailable to the animal in the small intestine. This is commonly found in minerals with a covalent bond structure, which cannot be easily broken down by microbes in the rumen or dissolved in rumen fluid. This form of mineral bypasses the rumen and gets absorbed more preferentially by the animal.

Dr. Jeff Hill, Ralco Ruminant Nutritionist, recommends that intake of trace minerals during late gestation should be at least 100% of her requirement and preferably 25% above her normal allowance to give some variation in intake.

However, trace minerals are not very appetizing to cattle. To ensure intake is sustained, mineral should be formulated with precise levels of salt and palatable ingredients to ensure consumption doesn’t come up short.

Mineral antagonists can also cause absorption issues. For example, the absorption of Cu can be reduced by high levels of molybdenum (Mo), iron (Fe) and sulfur (S) all of which have the potential to be excessive in grass or feedstuffs, depending on geography and type of feedstuff.

A ruminant nutritionist can help identify the levels of available minerals in a forage supply and balance your mineral appropriately to avoid these absorption issues.

2. Monitor body condition

Body condition at calving can also impact colostrum quality and the health of the calf.

It’s recommended to maintain a body condition score (BCS) of at least 5 at calving to ensure optimum colostrum quality, calf health and return to estrus (first cycle) at breeding.

Anything less than a BCS of 4, your cows are too thin and need to add body condition before calving. Any cows with a BCS of 7 or more can have an increased risk of dystocia (birth challenges) and lower colostrum quality and quantity.

For help scoring your cattle, online charts and visuals can help identify where your cattle are and where they need to be before calving.

To add body condition quickly, ensure the energy -- commonly referenced as TDN (total digestible nutrients) is adequate in their diet. Keep in mind that if the TDN is in the form of forage, fermentation in the rumen is required to unlock this energy. More specifically, rumen microbes are responsible for releasing this energy to the cow. They require protein (crude protein) or nitrogen (N).

For the ruminal microbes to fully release the energy tied up in the forage, the correct ratio of TDN and CP must be in your cow’s forage diet. This perfect ratio is 8:1 TDN:CP or less. Too much TDN, relative to CP (N) is deficient, and rumen microbes are inefficient at breaking down forage. Too much CP and the animal will excrete excess N.

Research studies from the University of Nebraska evaluated the effects of providing protein supplementation during late gestation. Cows either received or didn’t receive 1 lb. per day of a protein supplement (42% crude protein) during late gestation. Results showed that steers born to cows who received the protein were heavier than male offspring born to non-supplemented cows.

A ruminant nutritionist can help you assess the energy level in your forage and supplement protein (crude protein) if needed before calving.

3. Increase cow energy status

Often, people equate body condition and protein/energy status as the same thing, but this isn’t always the case. Oddly enough, cows can be in good body condition and still be protein deficient. This can hinder their immune system and colostrum quality.

A low-capacity immune system will not generate high-quality colostrum. Colostrum is made with specialized proteins and contains large amounts of antibodies. Antibodies are what the calf needs for immune protection.

If grass is low-quality and protein-deficient, this can impact the quality and quantity of colostrum.

Again, it’s recommended that a forage supply’s energy and protein status be balanced. This balance is a TDN:CP ratio of 8:1.

Ruminant nutritionist note: Your forage can be in balance and still be deficient. It’s always recommended to consult with a nutritionist to ensure your cows are taking full advantage of your forage supply and also meeting their overall nutritive requirements.

4. Strategically administer vaccinations

Vaccinating later in pregnancy is often a standard procedure for increasing the cow’s concentration of antibodies and passing them to the calf in colostrum.

It’s important to note that cows begin pulling antibodies from the blood and storing them in their mammary tissue three to five weeks before calving.

Planning your protocols around this time frame is recommended, depending on the cow’s age and prior vaccinations. Too soon, and the antibody protection might not be stored in colostrum.

Talk to your vet about what vaccinations are best to help prevent scours and increase antibody transfer to calves.

Let Ralco Help Enhance Your Cow's Colostrum

For over 50 years, Ralco has been helping beef producers use natural products to achieve more predictable production and greater profits. As a third-generation family business, we understand the importance of helping multi-generational farms thrive!

Schedule a FREE consultation with a ruminant specialist today to improve your cow's colostrum! Call 507-337-6916 or email to get started.


  1. Hall, John B. “Management in Late Gestation Is Important to Two Calf Crops .” Extension Beef Cattle University of Idaho, University of Idaho,15 Jan. 2006.

  2. Harvey KM, Cooke RF, Marques RDS. Supplementing Trace Minerals to Beef Cows during Gestation to Enhance Productive and Health Responses of the Offspring. Animals (Basel). 2021 Apr 18

  3. Van Emon, Megan, et al. “Impacts of Bovine Trace Mineral Supplementation on Maternal and Offspring Production and HealthMe.” Montana State University, Department of Animal and Range Sciences, 9 Nov. 2020

  4. Stalker, L. A., D. C. Adams, T. J. Klopfenstein, D. M. Feuz, and R. N. Funston. 2006. Effects of Pre- and Postpartum Nutrition on Reproduction in Spring Calving Cows and Calf Feedlot Performance. J. Anim. Sci. 84:2582–2589.

  5. Stalker, L. A., D. C. Adams, T. J. Klopfenstein, D. M. Feuz, and R. N. Funston. 2006. Effects of Pre- and Postpartum Nutrition on Reproduction in Spring Calving Cows and Calf Feedlot Performance. J. Anim. Sci. 84:2582–2589.

  6. “Pre-Calving Vaccinations for Pregnant Cows” Drovers, 4 Jan. 2016.


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