Colostrum is absolutely the most important meal of a calf’s life. It is important for several reasons, not just for the antibodies that is provides.
First, it is a major source of food and energy immediately after birth. That energy is critical for a newborn in order to stay warm and get moving.
As we all know, colostrum is also critical for providing a source of antibodies to prevent disease. This will help protect the calf in its first few weeks of life when it is most vulnerable.
The latest studies show that calves that do not ingest enough or high quality colostrum at birth are three times more likely to be sick and five times more likely to die from illness. Calves that are sick early in life will likely never reach their potential, whether it is a dairy calf, or a beef calf. When their lungs are compromised early on, these calves typically don’t grow as well or handle stress as well as their counterparts.
Things that can decrease the intake of colostrum are; cold and wet calves that are slow to get up, calving difficulty, or weak small calves.
So what are the guidelines? Calves should be up and nursing within 1-2 hours. They need to consume 2 quarts by six hours and another 2 quarts by 12 hours (smaller amounts if a small calf).
We know that colostrum provides energy at birth, and antibodies (Igs or immunoglobulins), but it also provides hormones and growth factors. These hormones and growth factors cause the cells in the gut to replicate, helping the intestines to absorb nutrients, as well as repairing the lining of the intestines after a bout of diarrhea.
Another important component of colostrum is a nutrient called colostral fat. This fat is a source of energy which allows the calf to maintain its body temperature after birth. Five percent of the total fat in a calf’s body is brown fat, a special type of fat that uses colostral fat to produce energy in the form of heat. Colostral fat is a good defense for calves born in cold, wet conditions.
Remember that there are many different brands of colostrum out there, and they are not all created equal. Read the labels, and look for a colostrum ‘replacer’ instead of a supplement. Replacers will have at least 100g IgG. Also look for Bovine IgG and if licensed by the USDA, even better. Supplements can be used, and will work, but remember that the higher the IgG, the more likely the successful passive transfer.
Other tips: handle the colostrum carefully. Mix with warm water (100°F ) and feed immediately. Make sure it mixes well, and this is often difficult with higher fat. If using colostrum collected from a cow, ensure that you wear gloves, transfer the colostrum into a very clean container and freeze immediately if not using. Always use a warm water bath to thaw, as microwaving can kill off the needed antibodies.
If questionable, err on the side of caution and get the cow up to check her udder. Offer the calf a bottle, or if you are sure it has not nursed, tube feed it, or call us to help. And you can never go wrong putting a calf jacket on those little guys in cold weather!
And while we are on that subject, realize that a calf has a very small window of temperature that is ‘comfortable’, and it is from 59° – 77°F. Anything below that or above that, the calf will begin to use his resources (body fat, food) to heat up or cool off. A calf born on a 56°F degree day that feels pretty good to us will actually be in a negative energy condition. It will begin using those important nutrients to stay warm instead of growing! Just food for thought!