Colostrum: of life-saving importance for every calf

A new-born calf is vulnerable. It has no natural antibodies and during the first few weeks the calf’s own immune system is still insufficiently developed to fight off infection in the intestine (diarrhoea) or lungs (pneumonia). For that reason it is essential that calves be fed colostrum as quickly as possible following birth. Colostrum contains high concentrations of antibodies (IgG) that protect the calf. The colostrum also contains energy, protein, minerals, vitamins and substances that have a positive influence on the development of the small intestine.

Plenty, quickly, often and fresh

Make sure that your calf receives at least three to four litres of good-quality colostrum within one hour following birth (rule of thumb for the quantity: ten percent of the calf’s birth weight). A further two litres within eight hours and two more within 24 hours. In other words a total of between seven and eight litres in the first 24 hours, in which only colostrum is supplied from the first milking. In this way, your calf will receive sufficient nutrients to build up sound resistance immediately following birth. Rapid supply of colostrum is literally of life-saving importance: the take-up of antibodies by a calf via the colostrum works best immediately following birth. Within twelve hours, the take-up of antibodies is halved, and after 24 hours there is no further take-up of antibodies from the colostrum, into the blood.

Density of colostrum

Good-quality colostrum contains at least 50 gram IgG per litre. The first colostrum contains the highest IgG concentration; in the second colostrum, this concentration has already halved. Not every cow produces high-quality colostrum. Using a so-called colostrum meter it is possible to read off the quality of the colostrum at a single glance. The meter determines the density of the colostrum (total dry matter content in terms of fat, protein and lactose). High-density colostrum is rich in antibodies. You can also use a so-called refractor meter that measures the refractive index. That index is again a measurement for the IgG content of the colostrum. Good-quality colostrum can be frozen and therefore remains available for other calves. Do not defrost colostrum in a microwave, but simply warm it up gradually (‘au-bain-marie’).

Poor-quality colostrum is often a result of the ration fed to the pregnant cows during the dry period. In an ideal dry period, a cow maintains her take-up of dry matter up to calving day. However, this is only possible if the cow has access to tasty rations 24 hours a day. The quality of the colostrum is also influenced by the raw protein content of the rations and the amount of minerals and vitamins available.

If despite all these measures diarrhoea and airway infections regularly occur on your farm, request an appointment with the young stock ­specialists. They will help you analyse your management: from dry period through to the provision of colostrum and from hygiene to accommodation.