But the calf needs it right away!
By Gilda V. Bryant
Photos by Troy Walz, University of Nebraska
One of nature’s miracles is colostrum, also known as ‘first milk.’ Chock full of the mother cow’s immunoglobulins or antibodies, it gives the newborn calf passive immunity to diseases, like scours or respiratory disease. Calves receiving adequate amounts of quality colostrum have fewer illnesses, and they are more productive. Helping cows and heifers develop the best possible colostrum requires cow herd management and a mineral supplementation program.
Troy Walz, University of Nebraska Extension Educator, recommends ranchers evaluate the herd’s body condition score (BCS) at weaning, 45 days after weaning, and 90 days before calving (which is the last opportunity to put condition on cows economically). Consider sorting thin and adequately conditioned females into different feeding groups. This strategy helps producers develop feeding plans that maintain cows in adequate BCS or provide needed weight gain to thin cows before calving. Cows should reach a BCS of five and heifers a BCS of six in the third trimester.
“The fetal calf is in a sterile environment inside the cow and no exchange of immune factors occurs in utero from the dam to the fetus,” Walz explains. “Immunoglobulins or antibodies from the cow are large molecules that cannot pass through the placenta directly to the fetus. Therefore, the calf [must] acquire its immunity after birth from colostrum.”
Colostrum includes many immune factors, growth factors, and nutrients. Cow colostrum contains about 22 percent solids compared to 12 percent in whole milk. Most of the solids are the immunoglobulin IgG. Colostrum is also a significant source of energy, protein, minerals, and vitamins, especially A and E. Neonatal calves rely on the dam’s colostrum until their active immune systems are functional.
High-quality colostrum is yellow with a thick, creamy consistency, containing over 50 grams of IgG per liter. If it is clear and runny, it is likely of poor quality. Ranchers can check colostrum quality estimates with a colostrometer, which measures specific gravity to estimate antibody concentration.
Calf needs it right away
“Ideally, the calf will be up and nursing within an hour of birth and will have consumed five to six percent of its body weight by the time it is six hours old and then the same amount by 12 hours,” Walz reports. “For an 80-pound calf, this is two to 2.5 quarts. A 12-hour old calf should have consumed at least one gallon of colostrum.”
Newborn calves’ intestines have the unique ability to absorb intact immunoglobulins into the bloodstream. However, the intestine quickly begins to mature, and by six to 12 hours after birth, there is a lower transferability of immunoglobulins by the intestines. By 24 hours of age, only a very low percentage of intact immunoglobulins can pass into the calf’s bloodstream. That is why the calf must receive colostrum as soon after birth as possible.
“If the calf receives no colostrum before the gut closes to absorbing immunoglobulins, the calf will be susceptible to disease and infection,” Walz warns. “Calves that don’t ingest enough high-quality colostrum soon after birth are three times more likely to get sick and five times more likely to die later in life as compared to calves that receive adequate colostrum.”
Research conducted at the University of Nebraska’s Meat Animal Research Center looked at the effect of passive immune status on pre and postweaning health and performance. Among 263 beef calves, blood samples were collected 24 hours after birth to determine levels of plasma protein and serum IgG. Disease and death among the study population were monitored from birth to weaning and after weaning throughout the feeding period. The lowest levels of passive immunity were observed among calves that were sick or died before weaning. Calves with inadequate passive immunity had:
- A 5.4 times greater risk of death before weaning,
- 6.4 times greater risk of being sick during the first 28 days of life,
- A 3.2 times greater risk of being sick any time before weaning when compared to calves with an adequate passive transfer,
- And, the risk of being sick in the feedlot was also three times greater for calves that received inadequate passive immunity.
The study suggests that inadequate transfer of passive immunity from the colostrum is directly associated with health problems before and after weaning.
Cow nutrition important
A calf may not receive adequate amounts of colostrum because of poor mothering, low-quality colostrum, poor udder conformation, weather stress, dystocia (difficult birth), or injuries to the calf.
Ethan Schlegel, Beef Nutritionist with New Generation Supplements, says supplements are not a replacement for a quality diet. He says it is crucial for ranchers to provide a vitamin and mineral supplement when feeding lower quality hay than if animals are receiving quality grass or an alfalfa blend.
“I recommend animals receive a quality trace mineral and vitamin supplement,” Schlegel says. “Ranchers can provide supplements year-round economically and not cost that much more than if they provide it for a short time. Make sure to meet their needs for all trace minerals such as zinc, manganese, and especially selenium for gestation and pre-calving, as well as vitamin E, especially going into the third trimester.”
When the calf cannot get colostrum from the dam, high-quality replacement colostrum is an option. Dried bovine colostrum, instead of blood serum, provides far better results. First-calf heifers or cows with poor body condition are more likely not to produce colostrum, or if they do, the quality and quantities are low. Making sure the calf receives the replacement is crucial for passive immunity.
“I encourage producers to keep replacement colostrum on hand,” Schlegel argues. “I know it’s expensive, doesn’t have a long shelf life, but you only have a four-to-six-hour window from the time that calf is born to get it into him. If a town is a long distance from the ranch or the weather is bad, it’s easier to have it on hand.”
Having a dam in good body condition and an adequate plane of nutrition is vital to producing the best possible colostrum. Newer research focused on feeding higher concentrations of vitamin E, appears to boost immunoglobulins, especially IgG. Supplemental levels of niacin or B3, higher concentrations of omega-3s, MOS probiotics, or organic chelated minerals also improve colostrum quality, and health and performance of the calf, especially when fed during the third trimester to the dam.
“In South Dakota and a large part of the western U.S., there is a lingering drought,” Schlegel concludes. “That puts a strain on much of the forage. Hay prices are high and quality is variable. If feeding hay, meet with your feed representative or county extension agent to get a forage analysis. Know what you’re providing to your animals, whether it’s grass hay, or mixed ration. You have to know what nutrients the plant has to supplement the diet adequately. It’s a matter of knowing what you’re putting in through the diet and taking an honest assessment of how the cowherd looks.”
Grow them up
Gary Alston runs Black Baldies, a hybrid of Black Angus and Hereford cattle, in the low rolling hills of the eastern Texas Panhandle outside of Wheeler. He provides a complete mineral package to his cattle year-round. His calves are born in April and May and weaned on November first. About 60 days after weaning, Alston moves the calves to wheat pastures, when available, to “grow them up a little.”
“I have given colostrum replacements,” Alston explains. “It usually happens when we lose a first-calf heifer or the mama won’t take the calf. We feed the calf colostrum replacement with the milk bottle, then switch to milk replacement [after 24 hours].”
Alston and other area ranchers are fortunate to have a terrific veterinary clinic in Wheeler. Although Alston does not keep colostrum replacement on hand, he can easily get the supplement from his nearby veterinarian. All the calves Alston has given colostrum to survived and experienced good health because their immune systems had a boost from a colostrum replacement.