Raising healthy calves is crucial to the success of any cattle-raising operation. The most critical time in a calf’s life is the time between birth and weaning, particularly the first week of life, before the calf’s immune system can adequately respond to infections that may lead to scours or pneumonia. Good colostrum management is essential in the raising of healthy calves. In addition to its nutritional benefits, colostrum contains high levels of immunoglobulins which transfers passive immunity to the calf, allowing it to fight off infection until which time its own immune system can respond adequately. The level of immunoglobulins is highest at first milking and declines to essentially nothing by the fourth milking. Consequently, the colostrum quality from cows that leak milk prior to giving birth may be poor.
Calves should ideally consume four quarts of colostrum within the first 12 hours of life. Beef calves should be observed to stand and nurse shortly after birth. In dairy calves, twins or orphaned calves, administration of colostrum through a bottle or esophageal feeder may be necessary. Because the efficiency of immunoglobulin absorption by the calf declines rapidly after birth, at least two quarts should be given to the calf within the first 4-6 hours of life with the remaining two liters given by the time the calf is 12 hours old. By the time the calf is a day of age, very little absorption of immunoglobulins occurs in the calf. For bottle feeding, colostrum can be collected from the dam and fed fresh or frozen for feeding to later calves. The highest quality colostrum will generally be collected from healthy cows on a good level of nutrition that have a good vaccination history. Older cows will tend to have higher level of antibodies in their colostrum than heifers. Frozen colostrum should be thawed in warm water < 120°F so as not to damage the immunoglobulins. Alternatively, colostrum replacers are commercially available through most farm or feed stores.
In conclusion, the basics of colostrum management can be summed up by the 3 Q’s:
- Quantity – calves should ingest a total of at least four quarts of colostrum
- Quality – the colostrum should be from the first milking of healthy cows in good body condition, and
- Quickly – at least two quarts fed in the first 6 hours of life and two more quarts fed by 12 hours of age.
Adhering to these concepts of colostrum management will provide a solid head start to raising healthy calves.