Agriculture news

Colostrum Management for Calves

18 June 2009

The intake of sufficient colostrum of the right quality, at the right time, is the single most important factor governing the future survival and health of the young calf.

What is colostrum?

Colostrum is the first secretion produced by the mammary gland after calving and its composition is very different from that of whole milk:


Typical analysis

Whole Milk


Total solids %



Fat %



Protein %



- Immunoglobulins %



- IgG1 (g/100mL)



 Why does the calf need colostrum?

Apart from being a nutrient rich first feed, containing bioactive compounds which help promote gut development, the calf needs colostrum as a source of immunoglobulins (antibodies) which offer significant protection against disease during the first few weeks of life. 

The cow’s placenta does not allow the transfer of maternal immunoglobulins to the calf before birth so calves are born without adequate antibodies. As the calf’s ability to produce its own antibodies only develops slowly over the first 3-4 weeks, if it does not receive sufficient antibody-rich colostrum immediately after birth, it will have little protection against infection and consequently have an increased risk of poor health and mortality. 

When should a calf receive colostrum?

In a newborn calf, large protein molecules are allowed to pass through the gut wall from the intestine into the bloodstream for approximately 24 hours, after which time the gut effectively ‘closes’.  The rule of thumb with regard to timing of the first colostrum feed is therefore ‘the sooner the better’ and, in all cases, within the first 6 hours.  

How much colostrum should a calf receive?

The calf should be fed a minimum of 3 litres of good quality colostrum in the first 6 hours.  Typically, it takes a calf about 20 minutes to consume this amount if left to suckle from the cow and surveys in the UK and the USA have found that 30-40% of calves fail to suckle sufficient colostrum when left alone with the cow.  To ensure calves receive enough colostrum, the only guaranteed method is to strip colostrum from the cow and feed it to the calf directly by bottle or tube (by suitably trained personnel.)

How do you know if the colostrum is of good quality?

Good quality colostrum should contain a minimum of 50g IgG per litre.  For a simple qualitative estimate of colostrum quality a Colostrometer may be used. 


Another guide to colostrum quality is to review other factors which influence the quality of colostrum and decide whether or not it is likely that the quality may be compromised.   Under these circumstances, a colostrum supplement such as Volac Volostrum may be required.

Factors affecting quality of colostrum (Ig content)

1)     Age of cow:  Older cows which have been exposed to more pathogens will typically have higher levels of circulating immunoglobulins which may be transferred into colostrum.  In contrast, the Ig content of heifer colostrum may be lower as heifers are thought to have a less well developed transport mechanism for moving IgG from blood into the mammary gland.  Colostrum from 3rd lactation+ cows is typically of better quality.

2)     Dry period: A short dry period (<3weeks) does not allow sufficient time for IgG to accumulate in mammary gland. 

3)     Vaccination: Colostrum from cows vaccinated against diseases such as rotavirus. E coli, BVD or IBR typically have a higher Ig content.

4)     Breed: although the biggest variation in colostrum quality is found within breed, there is also variation between breeds. For example Jersey colostrum contains a higher level of Ig than Holstein colostrum.

5)     Pre-partum milking/first milk:  Pre-partum milking 1-2 times to reduce discomfort in the cow has little impact on IgG, but intensively pre-milking or the production of more than 8 litres of colostrum in the first post-partum milking may be linked to a significant reduction in Ig concentration.

6)     Time after calving: The quality of colostrum decreases quickly after calving:

1)     Disease status: In herds where there is a known disease problem e.g. Johne’s, the calf should only be offered colostrum from its own mother or alternatively removed from the dam immediately after birth and offered a colostrum substitute or pasteurised colostrum.

Factors affecting efficiency of absorption (EA) of immunoglobulins:

In addition to ensuring that the quantity and quality of colostrum fed is high, aim to maximise the calf’s chance of absorbing the Ig’s.

Factors influencing EA include:

1) Timing: As the gut starts to ‘close’, the absorption efficiency declines.

2) Stressful conditions: Will reduce the EA (e.g poor environment, separation).

3) Presence of cow: EA is improved if colostrum fed in the presence of the mother.

Storing colostrum:  There is no point in storing poor quality colostrum – so test it first!  Colostrum may be stored for up to 1 week in the refrigerator before the IgG concentration declines, or stored in the freezer for up to 12 months.  When thawing, to avoid damaging the sensitive immunoglobulin proteins, do not heat to a temperature above 50°C.

Key points to remember - the 4 golden rules:

For more information please see Volac Calf Colostrum.

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