We have talked a lot about the importance of feeding colostrum and the importance of pasteurization, but we haven’t really discussed the importance of how that colostrum is collected and how it is stored. By now, we all know that those first few hours of a calf’s life are the most critical. Being born without a natural immune system, the antibodies that they receive from the first and second feedings of colostrum will determine their passive transfer rate. If this is not successful, then the calf can be subject to a host of illnesses like scours.

Collection of Colostrum

While it is impossible to eliminate all pathogens during colostrum collection there are things that we can do to limit the amount of bacterial growth. There are some things that you can do to make sure that your colostrum is as clean as possible because contaminated colostrum is a source of infection and illnesses in calves. So how do we get “clean” colostrum? Well, that starts with proper hygiene practices during the milking process.

Remember that these cows have not been milked in over 60 days, so cleaning properly is of the utmost importance.  You will need to begin with pre-stripping the teats to remove any sealants and then washing contaminated teats thoroughly then dry with a clean rag or paper towel. You may need to repeat the stripping process to ensure that all sealants have been removed. Then you will want to dip the teats in a pre-dip disinfecting solution for at least 30 seconds to effectively kill any bacteria. Make sure the teat is clean and dry before milking.

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

Also, these cows should be milked in the first 1-2 hours after giving birth, no longer than 6 hours later as the IgG concentrations will decrease over time. Discard any bloody or colostrum from cows with mastitis and cows that have tested positive for Johne’s disease. NEVER pool colostrum, doing this affects the overall quality.

The milking unit and the collection bucket MUST be clean and sanitized before and after each use. You will want to avoid any cross-contamination between cows! Make sure your collection bucket is designated for colostrum only and it should have a lid. You will want to rinse the bucket with lukewarm water before use. Keep the lid on the collection bucket before and after collection and any time it is in the milking parlor. 

When you collect colostrum it is important to know what that colostrum is going to be used for, whether it is to be fed immediately or not.

Testing Colostrum

Testing the quality of each batch of colostrum is an important step in the collection process.  You will want to use a Brix Refractometer to determine the IgG concentration levels. These devices, measure the amount of light that is refracted or bent. So, with that being said the greater number of proteins in the colostrum equals the more light that is bent. 

You will want to calibrate the refractometer with water before each use. Also, the temperature of the colostrum will affect the reading, ideally, the temperature should be between 60-72°F. Colostrum temperatures below this range will give you a higher reading of the IgG concentration, thus overestimating the quality. Colostrum at a temperature that is warmer than 72°F will result in underestimating the quality and a lower reading. A reading of 22% or higher on the refractometer means that your colostrum is of good quality.

Remember to not leave the colostrum at room temperature after the quality check, the bacteria doubles every 20 minutes.

Storage of Colostrum

Proper colostrum storage is also a critical step if you are not feeding it immediately after birth. You should store collected colostrum in either a refrigerator or freezer. No matter which way you store your colostrum, you should ALWAYS label it with the date of collection, the Brix reading, and dam number for your traceability.

First, let’s discuss refrigeration, your refrigerator should be set at 40°F. You should store the colostrum within the first half-hour after collection to minimize bacterial growth. It is recommended that you ONLY store colostrum in the refrigerator for no more than 24 hours if your colostrum is unpasteurized. With pasteurizing colostrum, you can store the colostrum for a couple of days before warming and feeding any longer than 2-3 days, the quality of the colostrum will deteriorate.

Your second storage option is storing colostrum in the freezer. This option gives you a 6-12 month storage capability. You will want to store the colostrum in meal-size portions preferably in bags that can lay flat. Doing this will not only help prevent bacterial growth but also will aid in faster and more even thawing. Please note that you should not freeze, thaw and refreeze colostrum, that only will decrease the quality.

How you handle your colostrum, aka “liquid gold” as many like to call it, will determine how successful your future herd is and ultimately the future of your dairy. If there are defects in your protocols in the collection and storage aspects of your colostrum management regime, then you may still see health issues in your calves even if you are feeding “good” quality colostrum. By controlling all the steps in the handling of colostrum, from how it is collected, handled, and stored may significantly reduce the incidence of illness.

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