Colostrum Feeding and the Dairy Calf
What is Colostrum?
Colostrum is the first milk produced by the cow. It is very high in antibodies which are absorbed by the calf when they drink it. Antibodies are essential to help protect the calf from infections. It is vital that the calf gets plenty of colostrum during the first few hours of life as the calf can only absorb these essential antibodies during the first 24 hours of its life. Colostrum from cows on your farm contains antibodies to those pathogens present on your farm – it is very specific.
How much colostrum does a calf need?
The quantity of colostrum required is dependent on the quality of the colostrum that the calf receives. Not all colostrum is equal! Quality of colostrum can be reduced if:-
• The dam is a first time calver
• The cow has leaked milk prior to calving
• The cow has very recently been introduced to the farm
• The first milking produces a high volume (the antibodies tend to get diluted)
Your vet can do a blood test in freshly born calves to evaluate if your calves are getting enough colostrum but as a general rule of thumb a calf needs around 6 pints (3 litres) in the first 6 hours of life.
How should colostrum be fed?
The calf can be allowed to suck the cow but plenty of time should be allowed for this. The calf should remain with the cow for at least 12 hours (preferably 24 hours). It is important to observe the calf sucking. Alternatively the calf can be fed colostrum via a bottle (preferable) or stomach tube – this ensures the calf has had a sufficient volume of colostrum. When feeding a calf 2 smaller feeds are preferable to one larger feed.
Colostrum can be stored to ensure a ready good quality supply is available for all calves. Colostrum should only be stored from cows producing good quality colostrum. In other words only store colostrum from cows that:-
• Have had 2 calves or more
• Have not been leaking milk
• Have been exposed to all the pathogens on your farm
Colostrum can be stored:-
1. In the fridge (1-2C) for up to a week. If the colostrum shows signs of souring this may indicate that the quality of the colostrum is likely to have been reduced.
2. Frozen – don’t use frost free freezers as these tend to thaw and refreeze in cycles. Colostrum can be stored for up to a year
When defrosting frozen colostrum place the container in WARM water (50C maximum). Using boiling water or a microwave may damage the antibodies and reduce its quality.
One point to remember if you pool colostrum to feed to your calves is that colostrum may contain infectious agents such as johnes disease which in turn can be spread to any calf drinking it. It is not possible to pasteurize colostrum.