A nationwide evaluation of colostrum on dairy farms in the U.S. showed that 60% of maternal colostrum fed to newborn dairy calves is inadequate, meaning many calves are at risk of passive transfer failure, according to Boehringer Ingelheim.
When calves don’t receive enough high-quality colostral antibodies, they do not acquire necessary protection against the most common viral and bacterial infections found within their environment, the company said in an announcement. They’re also more likely to develop scours or pneumonia and are at greater risk of death.
“Calves are basically born immunocompromised, and quality colostrum gives their immune systems a critical head start,” said Dr. Curt Vlietstra, a veterinarian with Boehringer Ingelheim. “Numerous studies show that the quality of colostrum received at birth can influence average daily gains, disease incidence and even first-lactation milk production.”
High-quality colostrum is typically defined as having an immunoglobulin (IgG) concentration of greater than 50 mg/mL, but this number can vary depending on the cattle breed.
In order to ensure feeding the highest-quality colostrum, Vlietstra provided three recommendations:
1. Implement solid dry cow protocols. Colostrum quality starts with healthy cows. While the health of the calf starts at conception, the last 60 days are considered the most crucial for its development. During that time, providing proper nutrition, ensuring cow comfort and reducing stress will mean healthier cows and calves.
Proper vaccinations, including safely administering killed vaccines at the beginning of the dry cow period, are another way to keep the dam healthy and enhance antibody levels found in colostrum, he said. Cows vaccinated during the dry period are also more likely to enter the next lactation with a robust immune system to fight off infectious disease threats.
“The most inexpensive way to provide good immunity to a newborn calf is to provide good immunity to the dry cow,” Vlietstra said. “Bagged colostrum isn’t bad, but the good stuff isn’t cheap. You could give $5 worth of vaccines to a cow or heifer during the dry period, or spend $30 or more on a bag of colostrum for a calf down the road.”
2. Don’t overlook heifers. Some producers don’t use colostrum from first-calf heifers because of the common perception that it’s of lower quality. This can be a costly practice, as rejecting all colostrum from heifers means producers will need to replace colostrum for approximately 40% of calves born, Vlietstra said.
“It’s often assumed that heifers haven’t been exposed to as many bugs as cows and, if her colostrum looks different, that it may be of lower quality,” he said. “However, farms that test colostrum find that many heifers have high-quality colostrum as well.”
3. Test colostrum. Colostrum can be easily collected and evaluated by using on-farm measurement tools such as a colostrometer or refractometer. Both of these tools are designed to prevent failure of passive transfer by ensuring that the colostrum fed is high quality. Vlietstra recommended having a few bags of replacer on hand to make up for any colostrum that is tested and deemed inadequate.
Testing colostrum can also help determine factors that correlate to higher-quality colostrum on a farm. These insights allow producers to adjust management practices to ensure that cows provide the highest-quality colostrum they are capable of.
“Ideally, every batch of colostrum would be tested, and only good colostrum would be fed,” Vlietstra said. “The tools used to measure colostrum aren’t free, but the value of knowing the quality of colostrum being fed significantly outweighs the costs.”