Getting Calves Off to the Right Start

Researchers are using current technology in a new way to assess colostrum quality

Proper colostrum management and handling is the most important part of getting your calves off to a healthy start. Colostrum, the antibody-rich first milk a newborn calf consumes, is vital to its long-term health and future production.

Maternal antibodies, needed to ward off certain diseases, are not transferred in the womb. A calf must consume colostrum soon after birth to receive its mother's antibodies. Passive immunoglobulin transfer from colostrum into the calf's bloodstream helps protect it from common diseases until its own immune system can function normally.

Vivianne Bielmann, a University of Guelph department of population medicine master's graduate, and other researchers are using current technology in a new way to determine colostrum's quality by measuring immunoglobulins (IgG), a group of proteins that provide immune protection.

The ideal IgG amount for firsttime colostrum feeding should be a minimum 50 grams per litre, says Bielmann. If colostrum is not fed immediately after birth, calves may suffer from failure of passive transfer. This can affect the calf's immediate and long-term health and performance. It's estimated 20 per cent of Ontario calves suffer from failure of passive transfer.

When feeding colostrum to calves, sooner is better for optimum immunoglobulin absorption, adds Bielmann.

"If you feed colostrum within the first six to 12 hours of life, you should get at least 50 per cent absorption of available immunoglobulins," she says. "However, if you don't get colostrum into those calves within the first 24 hours, then there is probably going to be no absorption of immunoglobulins."

The researchers are using a Brix refractometer to assess colostrum quality. Unlike the colostrometer, the refractometer is durable, performs well at different temperatures and requires only a small colostrum sample. Producers now have an affordable, easy-to-use, convenient method that can be incorporated into a colostrum management program.

"We want to make sure high quality colostrum, which has high quantities of immunoglobulins, is fed to calves to ensure successful passive transfer," says Bielmann. "Feeding immunoglobulin-rich colostrum should provide calves with enough immunity to protect them against some pathogens they may encounter in the first few weeks of life."

Image of calf in calf hut

Feeding your calves high-quality colostrum will help protect them from pathogens they may encounter in the first few weeks of life.

This article first appeared in the Ruminations column of The Milk Producer Magazine, December 2010.

For more information:
Toll Free: 1-877-424-1300
Author: Carol Moore - student writer/University of Guelph's office of research; Ken Leslie - Professor, Department of Population Medicine/Ontario Veterinary College; Andrew Skidmore/Schering-Plough Animal Health; Sandra Codden/University of Minnesota; Jennifer Gillan/W Gillan Farms; Nicole Perkins/University of Guelph.
Creation Date: 09 May 2011
Last Reviewed: 09 May 2011