Frank J. Buchman

Cowboy • Horseman • Writer

Colostrum Is ‘Superfood’ For Newborn Calves

A person cannot watch much television without seeing an advertisement for the latest and greatest new “superfood” that will cure all ailments.

Colostrum is the superfood for calves, but it isn’t new, said Shannon Williams, Extension cattle specialist.

It has been around since the first cow calved. It was vitally important then and it still is today.

Colostrum is the first milk that a cow produces post-calving and that a calf needs for survival and long-term health.

Colostrum is packed with antibodies and proteins and includes energy and vitamins necessary for the future health and productivity of the calf, but it must be ingested within 12 hours of birth to be effective.

Colostrum is full of protein, energy, and vitamins A, D and E, while containing 50 percent more fat than milk. Colostrum’s other superpower is to increase blood volume, improve circulation, and increase calf survival.

While colostrum is a superfood, ranchers can have an influence on the degree of “super.” The quality of colostrum is directly related to the nutritional value of the feed the cow is receiving.

The higher the feed value prior to parturition, the higher the quality of the colostrum. A cow in good body condition, receiving feed that meets her nutritional demands, will produce a higher-quality colostrum than a cow that is receiving a maintenance diet and losing body condition.

Cows having their third calf have a higher concentration of protein in the colostrum than does a first-calf heifer. Colostrum produced in warmer temperatures is higher in protein concentration than colostrum produced at cooler temperatures.

A ranch’s vaccination program has an influence. The better the program, the more antibodies the calf receives against diseases found in the area.

How a calf receives colostrum also influences it. When a calf nurses or sucks a bottle to get the colostrum, the colostrum is delivered directly into the stomach and absorption is maximized. When a calf doesn’t or can’t nurse, it becomes necessary to tube them, so they receive colostrum.

When a calf is tubed, the colostrum is delivered into the rumen, where absorption is more limited. Colostrum only reaches the stomach once the rumen overflows.

Sometimes it is necessary to execute a “plan B” so a calf receives the necessary colostrum. Reasons could include a cow or heifer that doesn’t produce colostrum, death of the dam, a difficult delivery, or the calf just doesn’t thrive.

When preparing for plan B, sourcing colostrum from the herd is best. In a case where the calf just won’t suck, it is best to milk the dam and give it directly to the calf.

It is recommended that a calf receives at least 10 percent of their bodyweight in the first feeding. Make sure the colostrum is warmed to 100 degrees, which will help warm a chilled calf from the inside out.

It is not recommended to get colostrum from a neighboring ranch, although colostrum from a neighboring ranch or dairy is better than none at all. The antibodies in that colostrum will not match the antibodies produced by a ranch’s own cows.

Another option is commercially produced colostrum. A colostrum supplement is supposed to supplement or add to the colostrum that the calf already received from the cow.

When determining which replacement to purchase for a calf that has not received any colostrum, read the label to find out how many grams of protein are in each dose. Then mix and feed the replacement, following the directions.

Mixing correctly and feeding the recommended dosage is the only way the calf will receive the antibodies required. These calves will die at a higher rate or become sick more often in the first two months of life.

Ranchers can feed their cows correctly to ensure high-quality colostrum, freeze excess high-quality colostrum, and purchase the best colostrum replacement. But if it is not given in the correct window of time, it is of no use to the calf.

Calves can only utilize this superfood for a brief time. The optimal time for a calf to receive and utilize colostrum is in the first two to four hours of life.

The number of antibodies that a calf’s stomach can absorb drops rapidly by the time it is six hours old. By the time it is 12 hours old, absorption has dropped by 50 percent. At 24 hours of age, the rate of absorption of antibodies is zero.

For this reason, it is recommended to make sure that a calf has nursed. Indicators that a calf has sucked include a full belly, the dam’s teats will be smaller and wrinkled, and the rubbery capsule on the calf’s hooves will be worn off, indicating that the calf has been standing.

The key requirement of colostrum is that it must be ingested within 12 hours of birth to be super. After that, it is just milk.


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