Colostrum management for suckler calves

From pre-calving nutrition information to managing colostrum intake, our advice below will help to manage all aspects of colostrum in suckler calves.

Importance of colostrum in suckler herds

Calves are born with no antibodies and rely on the ‘passive transfer’ of antibodies from the cow to the calf via colostrum within the first few hours of life. If insufficient antibodies are absorbed, calves are at a significantly increased risk of death and disease during the pre-weaning period.

Passive transfer occurs when a young animal receives sufficient antibodies from colostrum.

A recent study from Edinburgh University showed that:

  • One in seven suckler calves had complete Failure of Passive Transfer (FPT)
  • One in three suckler calves had not received enough (Partial Passive Transfer PPT)

This shows that about one in five suckler calves did not receive enough antibodies from colostrum to ensure they thrive.

Do suckler calves absorb enough antibodies from colostrum?

Read our report

Nutrition

Optimum pre-calving nutrition is essential. Not only does this allow the cow to produce good quality colostrum, but it also provides her with the nutrients she needs for successful calving.

In a recent study, blood samples were taken from pre-calving cows, and their metabolic profile analysed.

The results showed that over one in three cows were in negative energy balance, and two in three had very poor short-term protein status.

The suckler cow must calve unaided, produce good quality colostrum and milk and return to cycling within six weeks of calving. She will be unable to do this if she is nutritionally restricted.

Poor energy on the run-up to calving is associated with an increased risk in FPT, other risk factors for this include:

  • Assisted calving
  • Assistance with colostrum feeding
  • Bull calves
  • Being born to a heifer
  • Being born a twin

Consider asking your vet to take blood samples from your suckler cows to test the nutritional status of your herd. This will help you to manage rations to avoid calving issues related to nutrition.

Top tips

  • Ensure that cows are in body condition 2.5–3.0 at least one month prior to calving
  • Ensure that cows are fed to meet their current energy and protein requirements during the last month of pregnancy
  • Use a high magnesium (10–15%) dry cow mineral to supplement suckler cows in the last month of pregnancy

More resources

Calf care after calving Managing feeding through pregnancy

Quantity and Quickly

Suckled calves should have consumed three litres or 10% of colostrum within two hours of birth. If not, this should be given to the calf via a nipple bottle or stomach tube, preferably by stripping the colostrum from the mother or using stored colostrum from another cow.

The calf’s ability to absorb the immunoglobulins in colostrum reduces significantly from approximately six hours after birth and has gone completely by 24 hours.

Quality

Colostrum quality is essential to ensure the calf receives enough antibodies.

Colostrum quality can depend on the cow’s body condition at calving and her pre-calving diet.

Colostrum quality should be tested to ensure it is of good enough quality to allow full passive transfer. Colostrum can be tested using a Brix refractometer or colostrometer.

The results from these tests help you to make an informed decision as to whether the colostrum is good enough to be fed or stored.

Blood testing your calves can tell you about the effectiveness of your colostrum management. Ask your vet to blood sample calves within two to seven days of birth. Samples can be tested for either the antibody (IgG) level or the total protein (TP) in the blood. If less than 80% of the group are categorised as ‘good’, the potential causes of this should be examined.

Testing colostrum

Storing, defrosting and heating colostrum

Fresh colostrum should be fed to calves within one hour of collection, or stored in the fridge or freezer. Colostrum will keep in the fridge (4°C) for up to seven days and it can be frozen (-18 to -20°C), for use within six months.

Top tips:

  • Harvest with clean hands or gloves and use clean containers
  • Label containers with the date of collection and cow’s number to allow identification in case of disease
  • Defrost and heat in a warm water bath – using a microwave or boiling water will damage the antibodies
  • Do not heat above 40ᵒC as temperatures above this will cause deterioration in the protein in the colostrum, destroying the antibodies
  • Know the disease status of your cows. Do not collect colostrum from cows that are positive for Johne’s disease

Putting it all into practice?

Prior to the start of calving, it is recommended that you create colostrum protocol for your farm.

Make sure that all staff dealing with calving are aware of the protocol to ensure all calves receive sufficient colostrum, particularly those who have had a difficult calving, or where you have identified an issue with colostrum.

If you are unsure where changes can be made on farm, discuss with your farm vet to identify key risk areas.

Good colostrum management improves the health and welfare of young animals, increases productivity, and reduces reliance on antibiotics.

Useful links

Calf Management
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