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How to Preserve Colostrum for Agricultural Livestock

Colostrum is probably the most important thing you will ever feed your newborn calf. Preventing disease or the spread of disease has a lot to do with the first feeding of colostrum.

Why is Colostrum So Important to Newborn Calves?

Calves are especially vulnerable to common bovine diseases such as scours and invasion from pathogens that are common in a livestock farm environment. When calves are first born, they must consume high-quality colostrum, or the first mother's milk, which is extremely high in protein, fat, natural growth hormones, minerals, vitamins, and most importantly, a special kind of antibodies not found in regular milk or milk replacer. These antibodies are known as IgG, immunoglobulins or globulin protein. Antibody absorption of the mother's first milk is known as passive transfer immunity because, during the first 24 hours of life, a calf has the ability to absorb these antibodies directly into the bloodstream without the aid of digestion. After 24 hours, the ability for the calf's body to absorb these antibodies falls to zero percent. This is known as failure of passive transfer, or FPT. For these reasons, feeding colostrum can either make, or break, the health of the animal for the rest of its life.

How to Preserve Colostrum

Cleanliness and rapid refrigeration are the most important parts of preserving colostrum. The immune system of a baby calf is almost non-existent, so any pathogens or bacteria that enter the calf's body will be absorbed directly into the calf's bloodstream. Here are some tips for collecting and preserving colostrum:

  1. Never collect colostrum from an animal thought to be or known to be infected with a disease. The viruses or bacteria in the adult animal's colostrum can enter into the bloodstream of the newborn animal through feeding either by nursing or by bottle.
  2. Never collect or feed colostrum that is contaminated with blood, manure, or any unknown material.
  3. Store colostrum in a clean 1 or 2 quart container that can be refrigerated or frozen.
  4. Do not store large containers of colostrum. Keep batches small so you can easily rewarm the colostrum without damaging the antibodies.
  5. Label colostrum containers so you know what cow produced it and what date it was collected.
  6. Do not use refrigerated colostrum if it is more than 1 week old.
  7. Do not use frozen colostrum if it is more than 6 months old.
  8. Discard outdated colostrum.
  9. Never feed colostrum that has been unrefrigerated for more than 30 minutes.

Rewarming Colostrum

Be gentle when rewarming colostrum. Beneficial antibodies that exist in colostrum can be damaged by excessive heat. Here are some tips on how to rewarm colostrum while preserving antibodies:

  • Store colostrum in small containers to make gentle rewarming easier.
  • Rewarm colostrum using a warm water bath, just as you would rewarm a human baby bottle.
  • Warm to a temperature of 100 - 105 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Do not use a microwave oven to thaw or rewarm colostrum.
  • Colostrum should be fed using a nipple bottle.

How to Measure Colostrum Quality

It is a good idea to measure the quality of colostrum to ensure newborn calves are getting the nutrition they need from the colostrum. Animals with poor health may produce weak colostrum, so you want to know the quality of the colostrum you are feeding.

Use a colostrometer to measure the quality of colostrum by looking at antibody concentration and specific gravity in the liquid. Colostrometers are most accurate if colostrum is at room temperature.

How Much Colostrum Does a Calf Need?

Feed high-quality colostrum within 2 hours after birth.

  • Feed 3 to 4 quarts of colostrum to large breed dairy calves.
  • Feed 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 quarts of colostrum to beef or small breed dairy calves.
  • Continue feeding colostrum every 8 - 12 hours for the first 24 hours.
  • If you purchased a baby calf and you aren't sure how old it is, feed colostrum. Although antibodies may not get absorbed by an older calf, the proteins, fats, hormones, and other minerals in the colostrum can only help a young calf.

How to Help a Calf Refusing to Drink Colostrum

Some calves may consume all 4 quarts of colostrum on the first feeding. Other calves may consume most but not all. When a calf will not drink the recommended amount of colostrum on the first feeding, store the colostrum and wait a couple of hours before trying to feed the calf again. If the calf still refuses the colostrum, you may consider a more drastic measure: force feeding via esophageal tube. Contact your veterinarian before tube feeding if you aren't sure how to proceed. This is a technique that requires training and experience, and misuse of feeding tubes can cause injury or death to animals.

If a calf refuses to consume most of the colostrum on the first feeding, contact your veterinarian to ask about tube feeding. Time is of the essence, and if a calf has not consumed most of the recommended 4 quarts in the first 2 - 4 hours of life, tube feeding is probably necessary. One exception is if a calf is not strong enough to sit up on its own. This could indicate a larger problem, and your veterinarian should be contacted.

Colostrum Supplements and Colostrum Replacers

Natural maternal colostrum for your calf is most recommended, however if your colostrum has become contaminated, is not high enough quality, or is not plentiful enough, you may want to consider using a colostrum supplement or colostrum milk replacer. Colostrum supplements can contain antibodies from dried colostrum or dried serum. Calves need at least 150 grams of antibodies in the first 6 - 8 hours of life to achieve successful passive transfer immunity.

Colostrum Supplements

Colostrum supplements usually contain 30 to 60 grams of antibodies and can be fed alone or mixed with available maternal colostrum. Use a colostrum supplement in 2 or 3 feedings if no maternal colostrum is available.

Colostrum Replacers

Colostrum replacers usually contain higher levels of antibodies than colostrum supplements: about 100 - 150 grams of antibodies. Replacers make the cost of each feeding increase by 2 - 3 times.