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Colostrum For Beef Calves

By Travis Peardon, PAg., Regional Livestock Specialist, Outlook Regional Office

February 2018

Calving season is upon us once again. Did you know newborn calves do not have a fully developed immune system when they are born? As such, colostrum intake for newborns is critical. Colostrum is the first milk available to a newborn calf and it is rich in proteins and antibodies. The main antibody in colostrum is called immunoglobulin G (IgG). Antibodies are required for immune function and disease resistance. It’s vital to a good start on building an effective immune system.

Calves should consume five to six per cent of their body weight in colostrum within the first six hours of life, and that amount again within the next six hours. It is critical that the calf nurse and receive colostrum within its first 12 hours because after 24 hours, the calf’s digestive system is not able to absorb the large proteins and antibodies in the colostrum.

Cows begin to produce colostrum five weeks pre-partum and production ends at calving. The antibodies are transferred from the bloodstream through the colostrum to the calf. The amount of colostrum and the amount of antibody concentration are lower in first and second calvers than in older cows. Colostrum from older cows has more antibodies due to greater disease exposure. Antibody concentration levels tend to be lower in cows with higher milk volume.

The level of dietary protein cows are consuming is important for volume, quality and maintaining antibody content in the colostrum and milk. A good nutrition program will increase the immunoglobulin concentration in the colostrum. Good nutrition increases the quality and quantity of colostrum and subsequent milk production.

Should something happen that colostrum is not available to the calf, a supplement may be given. Or if the calf cannot nurse, the cow may be milked and the colostrum can be tube fed. Commercial supplements are less efficient than colostrum from the cow, but they are certainly effective when colostrum is not an option. Look for products that have a minimum 60 grams of IgG. Not all commercial products mix well with water and therefore it is worth trying a few different brands until you find one that does. 

Colostrum from dairy cows has much lower concentrations of IgG, so it’s not ideal for beef calves. Keep in mind that colostrum from another farm always has the potential to introduce an infectious agent.

Colostrum can be collected, froze and used at a later date. It should be collected within the first 24 hours of birth. It can be stored frozen for up to a year. It should not be thawed and refrozen and it is important that it is thawed slowly in warm water so as not to damage the antibodies and immunoglobulins.

Calves that do not ingest enough high quality colostrum soon after birth are three times more likely to get sick and five times more likely to die later in life as compared to calves that receive adequate colostrum. 

For more information on this or other related topics, please contact your local Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture Regional Office.

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