The importance of colostrum.


Dr Bob James, professor emeritus of Dairy Science and Virginia Tech University, discusses the importance of good colostrum management. Dr James said colostrum contained a raft of components that were important to the calf and should be fed for longer than previously recommended. All the focus had been on one component in colostrum — Immunoglobulin G or IgGs or antibodies. These were important and the transfer of those particular antibodies needed to happen quickly.

But the other components in colostrum, including second and subsequent milking colostrum, particularly when it was compared to whole milk (see Table 1) played an important role, which research was starting to unlock.

Table 1: Components in colostrum and whole milk

Colostrum Whole Milk
Solids % 15-25 12.5
Protein % 4-14 3.3
IgG % 5.2 – 9.2 0.04
Lactoferrin % 0.15 0.002
Il – 1B 840ug/1000ml 3 ug/1000ml
TNF 926ug/1000ml 3.3ug/1000ml
IGF – 1 100-2000 ug/1000ml <25ug /1000ml

These other components included cytokines, which are small molecular proteins involved in cell signalling, immune system and growth, and hormones, which are involved in metabolism, growth and cell function.

“We are just discovering the role of these two in the development of the intestine of that young calf,” Dr James said.

European research showed calves fed colostrum for the first four days of life had significantly higher long-term glucous absorption and better developed small intestine villi than calves fed calf milk replacer for the same period.

Dr James said he liked to see transition milk fed to the youngest calves for as long as possible. Farmers needed to work out a way to do that that fitted into their calf-rearing management system.

If the farm or herd had a risk of infectious disease, colostrum should be pasteurised. But he did point out that would reduce the transfer of immunity from the cow to the calf. Research at West Virginia Tech had shown calves fed fresh colostrum had a higher immune response to vaccinations than those fed defrosted colostrum that had been flash pasteurised before being frozen.

“If you just can’t (feed unpasteurised colostrum because of disease risk), that’s a compromise you have to make,” he said.

But regardless of disease risk, it was vital to ensure milking equipment and storage vessels used for colostrum were clean.

“Again, think about the milk that you ship, if it had a high bacteria count, it would be taken off the market,” he said.

“The same thing applies to this colostrum. If fresh cows are milked into dirty pails, it is going to grow bacteria every 20 minutes, the bacteria count is going to double at temperature. Pretty soon, you have bacterial soup.

“I want to cool that colostrum or feed it as soon as possible to minimise that bacterial growth, and that doesn’t mean taking the bottle and putting it in an old refrigerator you have at the barn, because it may take eight hours to cool.”

Putting a bottle of frozen water into the bucket of colostrum would cool it within 20 minutes.

Dr James said good dry cow nutrition was also important for producing quality colostrum. It was also vital to milk fresh cows as soon as possible after calving. If farmers chose to milk fresh cows only at certain times of the day, that might fit into their management system but they needed to realise they were making a sacrifice on the colostrum quality.

If you’re interested in learning more about Dr Bob James top tips for rearing calves click here to watch our video.

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