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Colostrum quality for calves' healthy start

November 8, 2016
Colostrum quality for calves' healthy start

Colostrum is critical to a calf's health but a number of factors can affect the quality and level of antibodies.

With the Veterinary Feed Directive (VFD) on the horizon and going into full effect Jan. 1, 2017, producers from all livestock sectors will be required to conform to these new regulations. For some, this will only require a little more paperwork; for others, a whole new business plan will be required.

A healthy start for calves begins with colostrum

With producers looking for ways to operate within the new law, the answer may be found in a fresh look at their management practices, beginning with calving. The first day of a calf’s life, especially the first few hours, is critical to its health and survival, setting the stage for lifetime performance.

The most crucial time is shortly after birth when the calf receives colostrum, which is naturally high in the nutrients necessary to increase the calf’s metabolism and stimulate the digestive system. Most importantly, it is the only source of immunoglobulins (IgG), or antibodies, which provide the passive immune protection essential for keeping the calf healthy.

Antibodies are absorbed in the gastrointestinal tract during the first 24 hours of life and provide the basis of the calf’s immune system for the first three to six months of age. Not only does colostrum provide the necessary antibodies needed for survival, but it provides a source of fats, proteins, vitamins and minerals.

Ensuring passive transfer of antibodies in colostrum feeding 

Colostrum feeding is the most important practice for getting the calf off to the right start. However, just because a calf receives the amount needed at the desired time does not guarantee the calf will remain healthy. A study by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Animal Health Monitoring System (NAHMS) showed that almost 20 percent of dairy calf heifers had failure of passive transfer, or a concentration of IgG in the serum less than 10 grams per liter (2007).

When the topic of colostrum quality comes up in conversation, one can hear “No, I do not test my colostrum, I can tell by physical appearance” or “I do not have issues with my calves, so the quality must be good.” However, there are many factors that affect colostrum quality that cannot be seen by observation only. It is recommended that a calf receive at least 100 grams of IgG, ideally 150 grams, from a minimum of 4 quarts of colostrum to help ensure passive transfer (USDA, NAHMS, 2007).

Factors affecting colostrum quality

What defines “good” quality colostrum? Research suggests that the concentration of IgG in the colostrum should be at least 50 grams per liter, with many factors affecting that level (USDA, NAHMS, 2007). There are other factors that contribute to and affect colostrum quality that are imperative to consider in your calves’ first feedings:

  • Breed plays a big role in affecting the concentration level of IgG. Jerseys average 66 grams per liter of IgG compared to Holsteins at 48 grams per liter (BAMN, 2001). As a cow produces more colostrum, we tend to see dilution affecting the concentration level of IgG.


  • Production of more than 18 pounds of colostrum at first milking (BAMN, 2001). Again, the tendency is to see a reduction in quality due to dilution of antibodies.


  • The age of the cow. Typically, the younger the cow, the less quality colostrum she produces. Younger animals have not been exposed to pathogens as the older animals have. Therefore, the concentration of antibodies in the colostrum is much lower compared to older animals.


  • The exposure a cow has to pathogens, whether young or old, varies from operation to operation. Each operation deals with its own issues when it comes to diseases. This is why a sound vaccination protocol needs to be in place not only to help promote animal health, but also to aide in producing good quality colostrum that has the needed antibodies for the calf to fight disease.


  • The management of the cow during the dry period. A minimum of a three- to four-week dry period is needed to help ensure antibodies in the blood stream eventually concentrate in the colostrum.


  • Along with length of dry period, nutrition can have an effect. If a dry cow is deficient in protein and energy, there will be a decrease in quality compared to cows with adequate nutrition.


  • Cows that have colostrum removed by milking or leaking before calving will produce poor quality colostrum due to the removal of antibodies and the dilution of what colostrum is left.


  • Colostrum that has a low concentration of bacterial contaminants (<100,000 cfu/ml total bacteria count, <10,000 cfu/ml coliform count) (Godden, 2008). To keep counts low, be sure proper handling of colostrum after milking is practiced to ensure a clean product.


  • Seasons that impact the cow, causing cold stress or heat stress and affecting forage quality. Stress from environmental temperature not only has a direct effect on the cow, but also affects the quality of forages that are fed.

Tools for quality colostrum

To help ensure a good quality colostrum, it is beneficial to get into the habit of using either a colostrometer or Brix refractometer. The colostrometer measures specific gravity using a color coded scale that converts the measurement to determine the concentration of IgG. Lately, the use of a Brix refractometer has shown to be useful in testing colostrum. Normally used to measure the amount of sucrose in a solution, the Brix refractometer can use the values to determine IgG levels in colostrum.

There are many ways to help improve the quality of colostrum that is fed to newborn calves. Ensuring that colostrum quality is high improves calf mortality and morbidity rates and provides additional insurance when producers are faced with reduced use of antibiotics.

¹Bovine Alliance on Management and Nutrition. Rev 2001. A Guide to Colostrum and Colostrum Management for Dairy Calves.

²Godden, S. 2008. Colostrum Management for Dairy Calves. Vet Clin North Am Food Anim Pract. Mar, 24 (1): 19-39.

³United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). 2007. National Animal Health Monitoring System  (NAHMS) Dairy 2007, Heifer Calf Health and Management on U.S. Dairy Operations, 2007. USDA-APHIS-VS, CEAH. Fort Collins, CO.

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