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How to maximise colostrum quality

Vaccinating dams and ensuring calves rapidly receive plenty of high quality colostrum is part of an ‘immunity-led prevention’ strategy which will help boost health and performance.

The calf is born with no immunity, relying on colostrum to protect it until its own immune system starts to become functional at around three weeks of age.
The calf is born with no immunity, relying on colostrum to protect it until its own immune system starts to become functional at around three weeks of age.

The health and future productive performance of every one of your heifers lies in your hands and starts with ensuring you get quality colostrum into them within four hours of birth.

It takes the calf three weeks to develop its own immunity, making it almost completely reliant on disease-fighting immunoglobulins available from its mother via her colostrum.

Vet Oliver Tilling, of Shepton Vets, says this highlights the importance of robust colostrum protocols on every farm.

“We’re bridging that period before the calf’s protection kicks in,” he says.

“However, it’s not all about stopping the calf from getting sick. There’s a lot more goodies in there.

Colostrum has a host of other important factors that aren’t just short-term, but long-term.”

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Oliver Tilling
Oliver Tilling

Uptake of immunoglobulins


Data collected by the South West Youngstock Group in 2016 suggests one-in-three calves are not receiving adequate colostrum demonstrated by insufficient uptake of immunoglobulin – known as failure of passive transfer (FPT).

This data-set was collected from hundreds of farms as part of an initiative run by vet practices across the South West, including Shepton Vets. The group was supported by MSD Animal Health.

Mr Tilling believes failure to adhere to the 5Qs of colostrum management is one of the main reasons FPT occurs.

All of the Qs are important, but Mr Tilling highlights ‘Quickly’ as particularly vital.

“The concentration of anti bodies reduces by 3.7% every hour post-calving,” he says.

“It’s a ticking clock. You’ve got to get it out as quickly as possible.

That’s where we see it falling down on-farm as farmers wait eight to nine hours before the next milking.

You need to get it out and into the calf as quickly as possible.” This is even more important considering the calf cannot absorb immunoglobulins after 24 hours and its ability to absorb gradually reduces up to this point.

Mr Tilling says: “That’s a sliding door, especially from four hours onwards. That’s why four hours is so important.”

Maximising colostrum quality

  • 1. Vaccinate: Consider vaccinating the dam to boost colostrum immunoglobulin levels for specific diseases after identifying pathogens on-farm
  • 2. Avoid colostrum pooling: Low antibody, high volume colostrum will be highly represented in pooled colostrum.
    Pooling increases the risk of failure of passive transfer by 2.2-fold
  • 3. Get dry cow period length correct: Excessively short dry periods of less than 21 days or excessively long dry periods will reduce colostrum quality
  • 4. Dry cow nutrition: Feed dry cows a balanced dry cow ration
  • 5. Limit stress: Stress reduces colostrum quality. Ensure dry cows have plenty of feed and lying space


There’s more to colostrum than you think...

It is highly nutritious. It has:

  • 5x more normal proteins
  • 2x more fat
  • 10x the level of minerals and vitamins

compared to normal milk (Godden, 2008).


Leukocytes, growth factors, hormones, vitamins and minerals help newborns’ immune system (Barrington and Parish, 2001)

Helps defence:

Stimulates production of acid and digestion enzymes when it enters the abomasum. Acid kills many ingested bacteria.

Intestinal development:
Colostrum aids the development of a healthy gut, boosting villus length and mucosal thickness.


Impacts metabolism:

First colostrum intake effects neonatal metabolism.


Stimulates heat production to help calves adapt to new environmental conditions.

Epigenetic programming:
Hormones and growth factors determine expression of certain genes involved in weight gain, mammary development and development of the digestive and reproductive tract.

Boosting quality with vaccines


Maximising colostrum quality is also a must. There are numerous ways to boost quality (see ‘Maximising colostrum quality’ panel), one of which is vaccinating the dam against the main causal pathogens for scours.

This boosts the level of immunoglobulins for these pathogens in the colostrum.

Mr Tilling advises working with your farm vet to establish if vaccination is applicable.

If calf disease is a problem, the decision to vaccinate should stem around identifying the causal pathogens on-farm and choosing an appropriate vaccination.

He believes more farmers should consider dam vaccination since more than 50% of calves experience scour in the UK.

A large number of these will be caused by rotavirus, coronavirus, E.coli K99 or salmonella.

For example, the APHA Veterinary Investigations Diagnosis Analysis Report 2018 showed that 41% of calves which had been tested for scours in 2011-2018 were infected with rotavirus or coronavirus.

Mr Tilling says: “These pathogens are highly prevalent and vaccination would help prevent those poorly calves. It’s part of a package of measures. It shouldn’t be used on its own.

And you have to up your game on colostrum management so those antibodies are transferred to the calf to aid protection.” Cryptosporidium is also a primary cause of scours, however as this is caused by a parasite, no vaccine is available.

Instead the focus should be on hygiene and disinfecting gates, equipment and people with an effective disinfectant.

How successful is your colostrum management?

The proportion of calves receiving adequate levels of immunoglobulins should be a number all farmers know instantly, in a similar way to bulk somatic cell counts and calving interval, says Oliver Tilling.

“This is a key aspect farmers need to know about. They need to know about the level of immunity to maximise health and welfare and long-term productivity,” he says.

“As much as farmers are prepared to pay for milk recording, they need to know where they sit in terms of the calf’s immune status.”

  • To establish this, farmers should work with their vet to test a proportion of calves aged one to seven days old for total blood protein levels, at least once-a-month.
  • This gives an indication of immunoglobulin uptake and hence colostrum management success.
  • 52g/litre of total proteins equates to a target 10g/ litre of immunoglobulins
  • Ideally 85% of calves should have successful passive transfer of immunoglobulins
  • It costs about £4-£5/calf for a total blood protein test Blood testing acts as a useful monitoring tool, allowing patterns to be established and actions to be taken accordingly

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