Current Edition

current edition


Colostrum timing, amount, concentrations are key to prolonged calf health

Written by Gayle Smith

Traditionally, producers were told to make sure a newborn calf received colostrum within the first 12 hours of life. However, new research shows that the majority of that colostrum is actually absorbed within the first 30 minutes of life.

“The importance of getting a calf to mother up is really important,” according to University of Nebraska Extension Veterinarian Dee Griffin.

Receiving colostrum

Griffin said research showed if a newborn calf received 1,600 deciliters of colostrum, it was receiving a sufficient amount.

However, recent research followed newborn calves through the finishing phase and into the packinghouse. This research showed that calves that got twice that recommended amount – 3,200 deciliters – not only didn’t get sick in the feedyard but out-performed and out-gained the other cattle.

“It is statistically significant,” Griffin stated.

“What this means is our cows need to be good colostrum providers,” he told cattle producers. “They need to be fed right and vaccinated correctly. The calves receiving adequate colostrum had less foot rot and pinkeye problems when they were seven to eight months of age, on into the feedlot.”


University of Nebraska Extension Veterinarian Richard Randle agreed.

“Eighty-five percent of the calves dying from infectious disease have received inadequate passive transfer of colostrum,” he said.

“In an ideal situation, we want cows to give birth to healthy, vigorous calves with little or no calving difficulty,” he continued. “We want those calves to remain healthy and grow efficiently.”

Colostrum provides immunoglobulins and other components that help the calf fight pathogens and develop an immune response.

“Colostrum also provides nutrients such as lactose, fats and protein,” he added.

Why colostrum?

“When a calf is born, its intestine has the ability to absorb intact immunoglobulins into the bloodstream,” Randle explained. “The intestine rapidly changes over the next several hours after birth.”

“By six to 12 hours, absorption is significantly reduced, and by 24 hours, intact immunoglobulins (Ig) can no longer pass. That is why it is critical that calves receive colostrum as soon after birth as possible,” he stated.

Passive transfer can be determined in the calf, to see if it has received adequate colostrum, by measuring IgG levels 24 to 48 hours of age. Randle said if the serum IgG, a specific immunoglobulin, concentration is greater than 10 grams per liter, the calf has adequate passive transfer, but if it is below that, the calf is considered at higher risk of disease.

“The calf’s immune system is competent at birth, meaning it does have the ability to respond to disease agents, but it is immature, so it doesn’t respond the same as an adult,” he explained. “They are also naïve when they are born because there is no passage of immunoglobulins across the placenta during pregnancy.”

Producer intervention

If the calf doesn’t stand and nurse soon after birth or fails to repeatedly nurse during the first six to 12 hours, it is at high risk of having inadequate levels of IgG to protect itself from disease.

In these cases, the producer may need to intervene, Randle said. Calves suffering from cold stress, born after calving difficulties, dystocia, hypoxia are from cows that lack mothering ability may also require producer intervention, he added.

Where to get colostrum

Ideally, producers should collect colostrum from the dam and feed it to the calf. If that isn’t possible, he suggested collecting it from a mature cow in the same herd and feeding it to the calf.

“Heifer colostrum is inferior compared to mature cows in both quality and quantity,” Randle explained.

Producers can also give the calf colostrum from outside sources, such as a dairy, but he recommends using caution since several disease sources can be transmitted through colostrum.

If producers use a commercial product, Randle said they should determine whether the product is a colostrum supplement or a colostrum replacer. Supplements are very similar to replacers, but the key difference is a colostrum supplement is designed to boost the quality of the natural colostrum. It provides less than 100 grams of IgG per dose.

A colostrum replacer is designed to be fed as the calf’s only source of colostrum in the event no high-quality colostrum is available. It should contain more than 100 grams of IgG per dose, in addition to digestible proteins, vitamins and minerals, the veterinarians commented.

Colostrum replacer can be made from colostrum that is dried and heat-treated to eliminate harmful agents or from blood serum collected and dried from packinghouses.

When purchasing these products, Randle encouraged producers to determine if the product is a colostrum replacer or supplement, if it is made from bovine colostrum or blood serum and if it is labeled with a claim for bovine IgG or just globulin proteins.

He said producers should also make sure the product is licensed by the USDA as a replacer.

Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..