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Calf health: Do not cut corners with colostrum


Sharpening up on colostrum feeding and management can deliver big improvements in calf growth rates and survival, says Jud Heinrichs, professor of dairy science at Penn State.

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Speaking at farmer meetings organised by Massey Feeds and Alltech, Prof Heinrichs said a calf never got over a good or bad start in life and farmers must focus on achieving the best possible start for calves. He stressed making full use of colostrum was absolutely vital.


He said: “The key to effective colostrum feeding is quality and the first feed needs to be with the best material available. Colostrum quality varies considerably so it makes sense to test colostrum and reserve poor quality material, which will deliver lower levels of the vital antibodies, for later feeds and instead make use of frozen or refrigerated material.”


Prof Heinrichs said the importance of the best quality colostrum being used in the first feed is after just a couple of hours, the mechanism which allows antibodies to pass directly into the calf’s bloodstream starts to close down. Calves with low levels of immunity from colostrum are more at risk of disease, reduced growth and mortality.


He encouraged farmers to test all colostrum with a colostrometer. If colostrum is being turned over rapidly, for example where calves are born virtually every day, then storage in a working fridge is fine. If colostrum is being kept longer then it should be frozen, in which case it can be kept for six to 12 months.


The importance of labelling colostrum

Prof Heinrichs advised labelling stored colostrum with three things:

  1. The cow number in case it later tests positive for Johne’s disease, in which case the colostrum must be discarded
  2. The date of collection to ensure effective turnover
  3. The actual quality reading from the colostrometer

Prof Heinrichs said high yielding cows tended to produce more colostrum but this had the negative effect of diluting it which meant it may be of poorer quality. He said it was perfectly suited to second and third feeds but not the first feed.


He said: “It is essential to collect colostrum quickly. As soon as a cow calves, it starts to produce milk, which dilutes the colostrum, making it a lower quality.”


As well as collecting it quickly, it needed to be tested and stored immediately and Prof Heinrichs urged farmers to stop taking part in bacterial soup production.


“’Bacteria soup’ is where a bucket of fresh colostrum is left in the dairy, gathering dirt and muck. A survey in the US found manure bacteria were commonly present in such buckets of colostrum and the bugs can only come from one place.


“The bacteria will double in number every 20 minutes, so milk the cow within one hour after calving and get the colostrum either into the calf or stored immediately.


“Ensuring adequate intakes of high colostrum will certainly help give calves better initial immune protection but are no substitute for high levels of overall management.


“Also, the immune benefits from colostrum tail off after a few days and the calf’s own immunity takes about three to four weeks to develop. The intervening period is a high-risk stage so management should focus on minimising stress such as environmental challenges, changing sheds and groupings and selling calves.”


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