By now, we all know how important colostrum is to the neonatal calf. But, now we face the question, how many feedings are enough? Is it just a one-and-done kind of thing or is there more to it? This is a relatively new topic of research and much still needs to be learned. Before we dive into those questions, let’s review.

In some of our previous blog topics, we have discussed at length the care that goes into raising our upcoming herds. We have discussed colostrum and its importance, how to prevent scours, colostrum’s dos and don’ts, pasteurization and the best methods and set up for your farm and the difference between milk and colostrum.

Neonatal Calf Gut Development

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

It is highly important to understand the neonatal calf gut development, to ensure their livelihood. Calves are not born with natural immunity, meaning that there is no transfer of IgG from the dam to her calf while in utero, the calf will need to get the immunity from the colostrum that we are feeding to ensure that there is a successful passive transfer. Immediately after a calf is born the gut is “open” to absorb the IgG from the lumen to the bloodstream. This opening is ONLY occurring in the first 24 hours of life, then the gut “closes,” and passive transfer cannot occur. In essence, only one of the calf’s stomach compartments is actively involved indigestion, the other three compartments are inactive and underdeveloped until the calf is much older. Since the rumen is nonfunctional during this time period, only some liquids can bypass it and flow directly into the abomasum compartment. This is why the first feedings of colostrum are so important to deliver, as it is one of the liquids that can flow directly into the abomasum. Colostrum contains the necessary nutritional aspects the calf needs to have proper gut development. Their survival and ability to fight diseases depend on the quality and quantity of colostrum that we are feeding. Too little or poor quality colostrum will affect how the calf responds to the stressors in its environment. Their bodies should be focused on growing and not fighting off pathogens. 

In the first days of life, a calf produces very little amounts of the “normal” or rapid digestive enzymes required for digestion. This helps the calf to digest the nutrients found in the colostrum more slowly and efficiently thus, reducing the chance for scours. The second feeding of colostrum offers the calf a more steady supply of nutrients over these first 48 hours of life.

How much Colostrum Should be Fed?

In previous articles, and our current recommendation is 4L of high-quality colostrum should be fed within the first half-hour of life. All colostrum that is to be fed, needs to be tested with a digital refractometer to ensure quality. Ideally, this first feeding should have a Brix reading of 26.5 or greater. We also recommend the second feeding of high-quality colostrum of 2-3L approximately 8 hours after the first feeding. New research is currently being done on the benefits of this second colostrum feeding. Let’s take a look at what they have learned thus far:

New Research on Second Feedings of Colostrum

Research is showing that the second feeding of high-quality colostrum benefits the calf’s passive transfer (they are seeing an increase in blood serum levels) in comparison to beginning transition milk or regular whole milk. As illustrated by the image below, in a study conducted by Pletts, et al. 2018, the IgG levels seem to go up after the first feeding of colostrum, 50/50 mixture, and milk similarly. At the second feeding is where they begin to differ, with the second feeding of colostrum resulting in much higher IgG levels in comparison to the other two feeding methods. 

Second Feeding of Colostrum graph

Researchers are now recommending a minimum of 2 high-quality colostrum meals, then gradually transitioning to a 50/50 mixture, followed by milk and meals of starter. They are finding that the gut may be open longer than previously thought, but more research is needed to be done in this area to prove or disprove this theory. However, feeding these 2 crucial meals of colostrum may maximize the antibody absorption for the calf, resulting in a more productive cow later on. It has been found that inadequate colostrum intake in those first hours of life can reduce the lifetime milk production of that calf. They are now referring to this as “Early Life Programming,” meaning that early life events such as nutritional intake can influence future productivity.

Things to Consider for the Second Feeding of Colostrum

This colostrum should be cared for in the same manner that the first feeding colostrum has been handled. You need to take the same sanitary precautions and make sure that you are maintaining all hygiene protocols. You need to choose the proper size of feeding bags and containers. We now offer you multiple-size bags for the storage of colostrum, with convenient 2L, 3L, 4L sizes, so you can choose and customize your feeding plan. Remember, to always discard any bloody or mastitis colostrum, and discard colostrum from dams on antibiotics or with St. Johne’s disease. You also need to process and store your colostrum properly. Also remember, that you may need to increase the meal sizes depending on the weather. For example, during those extra cold days and weeks, you will need to compensate for cold stress with a larger feeding for the calf to sustain their caloric needs when trying to grow and stay warm.

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