Veterinary advice column: The full story on colostrum management for calf health

At a call recently, my client and I were discussing the importance of feeding colostrum.

It was interesting to hear what he had learned through his discussion group meetings.

During our conversation I felt that some aspects of colostrum management needed to be highlighted, and I would like to focus on a few of these here now.

Collection and storage

It is important to remember that the calf’s first opportunity to get an infection is through its navel or mouth.

A cow will lie down as she calves, and her teats will be in direct contact with the ground, so they will be contaminated.

They are now a source of infection for the newborn calf.

Teats and buckets should be disinfected before colostrum is collected.

This is quiet often forgotten.

Excess colostrum can be stored in a fridge at 4°.

However, bacteria will still grow, so it can only be refrigerated safely for a maximum of 24-48 hours.

Freezing at minus 20º allows it to be stored for up to one year.

It should be defrosted in water less than 40°, because temperatures higher than this destroy the colostrum, and render it useless.

It is a very common sight to see buckets of colostrum in the dairy, and people do not realize that bacterial counts can double every 20 minutes, given ideal conditions.

This means that a bucket of fresh milk in a warm room with just two bacteria in it could have billions of bacteria after 12 hours.

This would pose a big challenge for any calf.

If you are in a Johnes programme, then there are different protocols that should be followed, so ideally talk to your vet for more specific advice.

Quality

It is very important to remember that colostrum quality can vary dramatically.

Cows that shed milk before calving lose a lot of their colostrum, so collecting three litres of this may only be the equivalent of 1.5 litres of good quality colostrum.

Other factors that affect colostrum quality are short dry-off periods, breed variation, first calvers and high yielding cows who produce so much milk that you will see a dilution effect on colostrum.

Feeding

“Calves absorb the antibodies from colostrum through their gut in the first 24 hours after being born” was always the generally accepted statement.

However, this is only partially true, because calves actually have an optimum time of up to four hours after being born for absorption.

After six hours, their ability to absorb the necessary antibodies has decreased, so you now need to feed larger quantities of colostrum, which will still not give as good protection as three litres in the first two hours after birth.

It is a common argument that a Friesian calf is not able to physically take in three litres in the first feed, but it has been shown that they can do it easily, either by nipple or stomach tube.

It is also well proven that allowing a calf to suckle is the worst way to give colostrum, and this method has the highest rate of failure of passive transfer of immunoglobulin.

There is little difference between using a nipple or stomach tube, and it is now standard practice on many larger dairy farms to stomach tube all calves within the first two hours of birth.

Finally

If you are unsure about the colostrum you have given, or are experiencing problems with scour or pneumonia, then ask your vet to blood sample five or six calves less than 14 days old.

This will give an indication of the level of protection your calves have been getting.

If they are under-protected, they are open to scour and pneumonia.

A study was carried out in 2004 by UCD vets, Eoin Ryan and Luke O’Grady, which showed that each case of scour was costing €111.52, and pneumonia €136.03, but that’s another discussion…



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