Sector Ruminants

Three steps to efficient colostrum management

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The feeding of colostrum to calves is a much-discussed topic, and for a good reason, as it has a significant impact on the early development of a calf’s gut, immune system, health, growth, and future production potential. Colostrum is rich in the immunoglobulins (IgG) needed to build calves’ immunity and has a high nutritional value beyond energy and protein. Feeding calves with the appropriate volumes of high-quality colostrum in early life, the calves receive a head start in health and development.

The time for colostrum is small

As there is no antibody transfer from the mother during the pregnancy, calves depend on colostrum for building early immunity. Therefore, once born, the entire immune system needs to be provided through the colostrum while the intestine of a calf is able to absorb IgG. However, this ability to absorb IgG is gradually lost after birth. In fact, within six hours after birth, the absorption of IgG is already reduced by about 30% (Figure 1). This means that to build the immunity of the calf, we have to feed the colostrum quickly after birth.

Figure 1: The apparent absorption of immunoglobulin in calves (Matt et al., 1982).

In addition to having a short absorption period, colostrum IgG quality can vary too. This is because the cow only releases IgG into the milk until calving. Meaning the level of immunoglobulin rate is at its highest in the first milk and lower in every subsequent milking (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Evolution of the IgG concentrations from the first 16 milkings following calving (Levieux and Ollier, 1999).

In the case of an appropriate feeding regime for dry cows, there are some indirect links between the nutrition of the dam and the quality of the colostrum. Interestingly, if high milk production occurs directly after calving, the IgG content will be diluted and the concentration level of IgG in the first milked colostrum will be lower. Next to this, we see the general level of IgG in colostrum does increase with the age of the dam (Table 1).

Table 1: Immunoglobulin concentration of colostrum according to the calving number (Heinrichs, 1996).

The amount of colostrum necessary to build the calf’s immunity will depend on the quality of the colostrum, the absorption of IgG by the calf, and the time of feeding after birth. This brings us to the 3Q rule for proper colostrum feeding, QQQ being Quick, Quality, and Quantity. For strong immunity, a calf needs a blood serum IgG level of >10 g/liter. To achieve this number, the calf needs to be fed a minimum of 150 g of IgG during the first 6 hours of life.

Quick colostrum harvesting

To prevent contamination, cleanly and hygienically collect the first colostrum directly after calving. Contaminated colostrum will be less effective in transferring IgG and quickly go to waste

Colostrum to be used within the next 24 hours can be stored in a refrigerator. Extra colostrum to be used after 24 hours, once tested for good quality, can be stored frozen. By freezing colostrum with a high IgG count, a colostrum stock can be built for use in case the dam does not provide enough high-quality colostrum.

Freeze excess colostrum as soon as possible in small portions of about 0.5–1 liter and mark each portion with the cow number, date, and IgG test value. Smaller volumes are easier and quicker to thaw. Thaw frozen colostrum in a hot water bath with a water temperature of 50°C. Thawing at too high a temperature (>60°C) will damage the protein and the IgG in the colostrum.

Testing for quality

Testing the quality of colostrum is key to ensuring the calf receives the needed number of immunoglobulins. Test colostrum with a colostrometer or with a Brix-refractometer (optical or digital) to assess the level of IgG. The first milked colostrum should have an IgG level of at least 50 g/liter. If the quality of IgG in the colostrum is insufficient, the level of IgG in the calf’s blood will be low and indicate a weak immune system. Checking every batch of colostrum before it is fed to the calf is a practice that forms the basis of good colostrum management.

To gain a clear picture of the success of your colostrum routines, the IgG level in the blood of calves can be checked. Doing this at the age of 1-2 days will give you a clear picture concerning the amount of IgG you were able to transfer to the calf via your colostrum management and colostrum feeding system.

Feeding a high enough quantity

There are different ways of feeding colostrum to secure a good transfer of immunity to the young calf. Most importantly, feed at least 2 liters directly after birth (within the first hour) and make sure the calf receives another 2 liters within the first 6 hours of life. To ease manual labor, and ensure the calf gets enough colostrum, you can also feed 4 liters at the first feeding by a teat bottle. In some cases, the calve will not voluntarily consume the full volume. In those instances, it is best to feed the residual amount via an esophageal tube or feed the full volume via an esophageal tube.

Another option is to feed colostrum ad lib at barn temperature via a teat bucket. In the latter case, it is important to check the consumption of colostrum to make sure the calf consumes at least 4 liters of colostrum within the first 6 hours after birth. The focus is to ensure the proper intake of colostrum by looking at the quality, amount, and timing of the supplied colostrum. As long as QQQ is met, there is no clear preference for one of the above systems.

After feeding this first colostrum, the next choice is when to switch to a milk replacer or continue feeding colostrum for the next 2–3 days after birth. There are benefits to prolonged colostrum feeding, even though after 24 hours the intestine will not absorb any IgG to build immunity. Next to IgG, there are many other substances in colostrum that will support intestinal development and health during the early life of the calf. For this purpose, residual first colostrum or transition milk from the second or third milking can be fed.

To summarize, colostrum management is the start of every healthy and efficient calf-rearing system. Following QQQ—quick and hygienic collection, testing for quality, and ensuring quantity needs are met—early in life will give calves a healthy start. When successfully executed, this time and effort will translate into fewer health issues later in life and be seen in faster and more efficient growth during the rearing period.

Your Earlyfeed expert
Harrie van der Vliet
Product Manager Ruminants

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