What does a successful colostrum feeding program look like?

We all know that calves are born without a developed immune system, in fact they don’t have any antibodies to the outside world. That is why it is colostrum is so important to their livelihood. Without an immune system, they can’t fight any bacteria or microorganism that may get introduced into their bloodstream. This is why it is so important to properly care for your colostrum and that begins prior to the collection of it from the dam.

Colostrum Collection

There are some critical steps you have to take before you collect the colostrum from a dam. First, you have to have sanitized your milking equipment, this includes the collection bucket and lid and this must be done between each cow that is to be milked to prevent any cross contamination. When transporting the collection bucket through the dairy to where the dam is, you need to make sure that you have a tight fitting lid on before and after collection to prevent any air borne pathogens from adhering to the surfaces of the bucket and in the colostrum after collection.

Prevent Calf Sickness and Protect Future Profits: The 5-Step checklist for better calf health by Golden Calf Company

Then you need to prepare the udder and teats of the dam. Remember she has not been milked for about 60 days. You need to be using a a solution that effectively kills the bacteria- this solution should be in contact with the teat for at least 30 seconds. Then you need to gently wipe off that solution prior to milking. You MUST have clean and dry teats.

Colostrum Care: Testing, Pasteurizing, Storage

Once your colostrum has been collected, it is time to evaluate the quality of it. You should visually inspect it to ensure that there is no blood or manure in it. Your colostrum should be clean of blood and manure, have a thick consistency and be yellowish in color. Once it passes the visual inspection, it is time to test it with a refractometer to get the Brix reading. You are looking for 22% Brix or higher reading for high quality colostrum. Place each meal of colostrum in a single use colostrum bag and label it accordingly. You will want which dam it is from, the date you collected it and the Brix reading. This way you can identify which meals are meant for the first and second feedings and those that are lesser quality for subsequent feedings. Make sure that the funnel and hoses you use for putting the collected colostrum have been properly sanitized between each bucket of colostrum. You do NOT want to have any pathogens be entering the colostrum at this stage.

Once your colostrum is in meal size portions, it is time to pasteurize it. There is much debate on whether or not you need to pasteurize colostrum. We recommend pasteurizing colostrum to further reduce bacteria counts in the colostrum. Remember that pasteurization is NOT sterilization. This process is not eliminating the IgG concentrations, it is only killing off some of the bad bacteria that may be found. Make sure that you are pasteurizing the colostrum for the correct length of time and temperature (140°F for 1 hour). Any different time or temperature can alter the colostrum.

Finally, how you store the colostrum matters. Typically, freezing colostrum doesn’t affect the IgG concentrations of the colostrum. However, it can be affected by the thawing method. You should not have repeated freezing/thawing cycles of colostrum. This will decrease the IgG concentrations and increase the likelihood of bacterial growth, resulting in sick calves. After collection if you are not pasteurizing the colostrum, you need to feed, store in a refrigerator for no more than 5 days, or store in the freezer for up to 1 year. If you are pasteurizing the colostrum you can store it in the refrigerator for up to 10 days and freeze up to 1 year. When you go to thaw/warm up your stored colostrum, use a water bath no warmer that 104°F(40°C). Do NOT use a microwave to thaw your colostrum.

Colostrum Feeding

When it comes to feeding colostrum, there are some important rules to follow: 

  1. Feed within 30 minutes after birth. This is important because if we delay feeding, the calf’s ability to absorb the antibodies in the colostrum decreases by 5% every half hour, so if you wait until the calf is 6 hours old, they have already lost 30% of their ability to absorb the antibodies. This will cause an increase chance of a disease causing pathogen to enter their system.
  2. Feed at the proper temperature. The proper temperature for colostrum is 104°F, the same as the calf’s body temperature. Feeding colostrum that is too cold will make the calf expend extra energy to warm it up to body temperature. Feeding colostrum that is too hot, will burn the calf’s esophagus and may cause them to refuse the meal. Both of which can be detrimental to their growth.
  3. Feed the correct quantity/quality at the first few feedings. You will want to feed 4L of the highest quality colostrum that you have available at the first feeding. Followed by an additional 2L of that same high quality colostrum 6-8hrs later. The goal needs to be 100-150g of IgG as soon as possible. You can feed lesser quality colostrum on the subsequent days.
  4. Tube feeding calves is safe and delivers the colostrum as quickly as possible. Make sure that all employees have been trained to tube feed calves correctly. Doing it wrong can be harmful and dangerous to the calf. Please see our article on how to properly tube feed a calf. Also remember, to clean and sanitize all tube feeding equipment between each calf and feeding. Have separate tube feeders for colostrum and electrolytes. Routinely replace any worn or damaged hoses, and tube feeders.

When implementing a successful colostrum management program, you will notice that your calves will have good weight gain. You will save money on feed and vet bills, because we all know that calves with lower immunity will need more feed and require more treatment from your veterinarian. You will notice less scours and less calf deaths in those first few critical weeks of life. Also, a successful program will have regular protocol reviews to make sure that it stays on top of the colostrum game and ensure that each calf has the best start!

Prevent Calf Sickness and Protect Future Profits: The 5-Step checklist for better calf health by Golden Calf Company