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Colostrum intake has lifelong impact on calves

The worst thing that can happen to a newborn calf is to not get colostrum, that all-important first milk produced by the mother after birth. Colostrum is high in nutrients and antibodies, which provide calves with their initial protection against disease.

The quality and timing of getting the colostrum are also critical to calves. Years ago, Dr. Jim Quigley, who was a professor at the Universi­ty of Tennessee at the time, outlined the “5 Qs” of feeding colostrum effectively. I found these tips to be a great calf-raising resource:

1. Feed quality colostrum.

2. Use the proper quantity.

3. Provide it quickly.

4. Keep equipment squeaky clean.

5. Quantify passive transfer.

If you can guarantee that calves are fed adequate amounts of high-quality colostrum soon after birth, using clean equipment and making sure that appropriate passive transfer takes place, you can protect the young animals from many diseases, increase their immune systems, improve their growth and help ensure healthy and productive lives.

Colostrum contains high levels of immunoglobulins and other bioactive compounds that protect the young calf. To have colostrum with the appropriate immunoglob­ulins, the cow must be producing them. For your calves, follow the vaccination program recommended by the herd veterinarian. Generally, vaccinating cows six to nine weeks prior to calving and giving boosters three to six weeks prior to calving is one of the best ways to protect against common calf diseases.

We have seen increased colos­trum yield and density in cows that were fed MFA Ricochet Mineral for at least 60 days prior to calving. The effect is more pronounced in heifers and in the summer, but then one would expect lower colostrum production in heifers and in the summer.

Every calf should get colos­trum—bulls and heifers alike. Aim to feed 10% of calf bodyweight in colostrum within two hours of birth. Feed another 5% bodyweight 10 hours later. For a 90-pound calf, that typically looks like feeding 2 quarts of colostrum 30 minutes af­ter birth, 2 quarts an hour later, and 2 quarts 11-12 hours after birth.

Every calf should get colostrum, but not every cow will produce colostrum that should be used. Some cows are not good sources, such as Johne’s-positive cows, cows with mastitis, cows leaking milk, etc. Thus, it is important to have a supply of colostrum for calves whose dams are compromised. A colostrum replacer should provide at least 100 grams of immunoglo­bins; if under 100, the product is a supplement, not a replacer.

Even with the best colostrum ever, you need to feed enough— and more is better. I used to think that 2 quarts of good colostrum was more than enough. Dr. Roy Ax, professor of dairy science at the University of Wisconsin and University of Arizona, changed my mind. He tracked the survivability and longevity of cattle in which the only difference in management was whether the calves at birth got 2 quarts or 4 quarts of colostrum. The calves that received more colostrum had greater lifetime productivity.

Colostrum feeding and collection equipment must be adequately cleaned. This step is critically im­portant. The equipment should be rinsed with warm water to get rid of dirt and colostrum residues. Then, while wearing appropriate PPE, scrub all surfaces with chlorinated alkaline soap and hot water. Make sure that the water stays hot—really hot. Note that most household water heaters are factory set for “hot” water to be 120°F, but to clean and sanitize equipment, the water temperature should be 165°F. Use an acid-sanitizing solution to rinse all equipment, and let everything dry completely.

Cooling colostrum is also an important quality-control step. A milk jug full of colostrum put in the refrigerator takes a lot longer to cool than does the same amount of colostrum in a line pan placed in an ice bath. Fresh colostrum should be fed or prepped for storage within half an hour of harvest.

A calf’s colostrum intake follow­ing birth can impact them through­out their life, either positively or negatively. The right amount at the right time can benefit overall calf health and reduce risks for calfhood diseases, increase average daily gain and more. Talk with your MFA live­stock experts for more information on helping your calves get off to the right start.

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