Baby Calf Health: Colostrum Management & Health Calves

Colostrum management is the critical link in establishing a healthy calf. This practice, in addition to keeping the calf clean, dry and comfortable during the nursing period is of primary concern to insure the calf leaves the hutch in optimal condition. According to research conducted at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech, colostrum protection levels can vary from cow to cow.

The level or concentration of immunoglobulins (antibody protection in the colostrum passed to the calf) will vary from a low of 200 mg/dl to over 9000 mg/dl or a variation of close to 50 fold. You may not be aware of the measurement, but what you should be aware of is colostrum protection or concentration can vary tremendously from cow to cow. This variation is not apparent by simply visualizing colostrum for color or thickness. What should be apparent is the calf fed the lower concentration (200 mg/dl) colostrum will not receive adequate protection against bacteria or viruses in the environment. This study also indicated that the sheer volume of colostrum produced by the dairy cow may decrease the concentration of protection. Our feeding trials indicated that 1 gallon or 10% of the typical Holstein calf's body weight should be fed in the first 12 hours of life, but feeding prior to 6 hours is the most important feeding for adequate protection, with an additional feeding of 1 gallon in the next 12 hours. These feedings were split into 2 quart feedings approximately 4 to 5 hours apart beginning at 2 hours of age. What can you do to insure good protection status in the calf? Measure the level of protection with a colostrometer at room temperature, freeze and store the excellent quality for feeding the first 24 hours of life.

The fair or poor quality can be used for milk replacer. The absorption of colostrum in the stomach of the calf is decreased by 33% at 6 hours and 50% at 12 hours of life, therefore the best quality should be used prior to 6 hours of age. Insure the calf gets two gallons of good quality colostrum in the first 24 hours by nursing bottle or with the aid of an esophageal feeder. Remember, studies indicate at least 25 to 40% of the calves left to nurse the dam don't receive adequate protection. This may be because the concentration of the colostrum is too low for protective levels, the calf simply does not nurse, or because the calf does not consume an adequate volume from cows with the lower concentration of antibodies. Have your veterinarian randomly sample calves less than 10 days of age to measure antibody levels in the blood to document how well you are doing with colostrum management. Remember the key to a healthy start is good quality colostrum, and keeping the calf clean, dry and comfortable.