Being ready and prepared before the start of calving is essential for a successful calving season. A key component for any calving tool kit should be a quality supply of colostrum.
Colostrum, the first milk produced by a cow after giving birth, is packed with essential nutrients and antibodies. When a calf is born, it lacks disease protection because antibodies are unable to cross from the cow to the fetus through the placenta. However, the antibodies in colostrum offer newborn calves the vital protection they need. Penn State University emphasizes that these antibodies, also known as passive immunity, shield the calves until their own immune system is fully developed.
Antibodies from colostrum protect calves until their immune system is functional
Source: Penn State
When is it Too Late to Give a Calf Colostrum?
Calves need about two quarts of colostrum (or at least five percent of the calf’s body weight) within four hours of birth – ideally within 30 minutes – and one gallon within 12 hours. Time is important because a newborn calf’s digestive tract allows antibodies to pass directly into the blood.
After 24 hours, the calf’s intestines cannot absorb colostrum antibodies intact. The absorbed antibodies protect against the invasion of pathogens while antibodies that are not absorbed play an important role in protection against intestinal disease.
Colostrum also contains transferrin and lactoferrin, proteins that bind iron and act as an antibacterial in newborn calves, to protect them from disease. These factors, together with immunoglobulins, the antibodies in the colostrum from the cow, limit the growth of bacteria in the gut. The graph below shows how a calf begins to lose its ability to absorb immunoglobulins from the cow after birth and why time is critical.
Effect of time on colostrum absorption
Source: Ag Web
What to Give a Weak Calf?
Sometimes, newborn calves may struggle to stand because of stress or cold weather, which can affect how much colostrum they consume. Time is crucial in these situations. That’s where quick energy sources and bioactives like Start Strong for Calves come in. These types of oral drenches can help newborn calves get on their feet quickly and start nursing.
What’s the Best Calf Colostrum to Use?
When a calf is unable to nurse due to problems with the cow or calf, it’s necessary to feed the calf colostrum. Obtain colostrum by milking the cow shortly after calving or using previously acquired colostrum from a healthy cow. It’s important for the acquired colostrum to come from cows in at least their third lactation rather than heifers. Good quality colostrum can be identified by its yellow color and thick, creamy consistency.
Colostrum that has been obtained before must be kept frozen to preserve the integrity of the large protein molecules that make up the antibodies from the cow. Fresh colostrum can be stored in one-quart portions in a resealable bag. Freeze the bags flat in the freezer. When it’s time to thaw the colostrum and feed it to the newborn calf, the recommended method is to thaw it in a warm water bath at 122 degrees Fahrenheit for one hour. Avoid thawing at room temperature or in a microwave oven.
What’s the Best Calf Colostrum Replacer?
Calf colostrum replacers typically contain more than 100 grams of immunoglobulin per dose. Before purchasing, remember to carefully read the label to ensure you're getting the right product. It’s important not to confuse supplements with replacers. While supplements may enhance antibody protection, they typically only contain 40 to 60 grams of immunoglobulins, which simply won’t cut it for a calf that hasn't nursed yet. Opt for the superior option and give your calf the boost it needs with calf colostrum replacers.
How to Administer Calf Colostrum
Whether through bottle feeding or tube feeding, providing colostrum to newborn calves within a few hours of birth is crucial. The sooner they receive colostrum, the better.
If there's any doubt about a calf’s colostrum intake, immediate administration is necessary to prevent potential health issues. Calves that miss out on timely colostrum consumption are at a higher risk of developing calf scours, which can impact their overall well-being and disease resistance throughout their lives.
The bottom line is that ensuring each calf receives sufficient levels of colostrum is vital for their success. Prioritizing colostrum intake should be every farmer's top concern.