Importance of Feeding Colostrum to Calves

Why is colostrum important to calves?

  • Colostrum contains high levels of antibodies that calves need to prevent diseases caused by organisms present on most dairy farms. Calves are born with few antibodies of their own and an immature immune system that is not capable of producing antibodies for some weeks. Colostrum provides the needed disease-fighting antibodies.
  • Colostrum is a nutrient-rich first meal for the calf. Colostrum is high in protein, energy (fat) and vitamins.

When should colostrum be fed?

Feed colostrum as soon as possible after birth, ideally within one hour. The calf is capable of absorbing the antibodies in the colostrum for only the first 24 hours after birth. With each passing hour after birth, the calf's ability to absorb the antibodies decreases.

Wash the cow's teats and udder, and milk four quarts into a clean bucket. Feed good-quality colostrum to the calf within the first hour of life. Although it may not always be possible to feed colostrum to every calf in the first hour of its life, strive to ensure that all calves are fed colostrum within the first six hours. When calves are unable to drink all the colostrum, use an esophageal tube feeder. A second meal of colostrum is not necessary for calves that suckle 2 liter at the first meal. Colostrum should not be pooled unless cows have tested negative for Johne's disease, persistent infection with bovine viral diarrhea (BVD) and bovine leukosis virus (BLV).

Animals that test positive for these diseases may pass them on to calves through their colostrum and milk. When an older test-negative cow produces more colostrum than is needed for the first two feedings of her own calf, the extra colostrum may be frozen for use later.

What can be done to feed higher quality colostrum?

  • Observe prefresh dams closely enough the week before calving to know whether or not they are leaking milk. Dams that leak an observable quantity in the days before calving are very unlikely to have high quality colostrum. Feed stored colostrum from another dam or colostrum replacer.
  • Organize labor and facilities to milk fresh cows as soon after calving as possible consistent with the health of the dam. A workable goal is to milk at least eighty percent of fresh dams less than four hours after calving. Sooner means higher antibody concentrations.
  • For prefresh dams, consistently manage controlled exposure to pathogens most likely to cause problems for calves. Several vaccines are now on the market specifically designed to boost adult immunity to selected bacteria and viruses connected to calf diarrhea. When administered as part of a whole herd vaccination program, these vaccines can substantially boost colostrum antibody levels. As with all vaccination programs, discuss and review the use of these vaccines with your herd veterinarian.
  • Sort colostrum as it is harvested and feed the highest quality to the calves you intend to raise for herd replacement. The best sorting strategy is to use one of the tools mentioned above. If you do not have them available, feed colostrum that was collected closest to when the dam calved. In general, second and later lactation dams may have high quality colostrum than heifers. However, in herds with a well-designed heifer vaccination program as much as two-thirds of heifer colostrum may be of acceptable quality.
  • When excess high quality colostrum is available, chill it rapidly and freeze it for later use. When a dam calves with too little colostrum or unusable colostrum, this banked colostrum can be carefully thawed and fed with little loss of antibodies.
  • Do what you can to limit stress levels among prefresh dams. High stress levels may cause low quality colostrum. For example, stress may take the forms of too little resting space, not enough space to eat or drink, poor quality air and even too frequent additions of cows into the prefresh group population.