Colostrum is Liquid Gold

Managing colostrum correctly, to make the most of your liquid gold asset.

Colostrum is the foundation to building a healthy, productive, profitable herd of cows. Every farm in the UK has the means to influence its herd’s future health and profitability simply by managing colostrum from the point of harvest through to feeding more effectively.

Attention to detail during this process is the key, and making use of a wide range of tools which are available to manage this life giving liquid. Effective colostrum management ensures future success for your calf rearing enterprise and puts the calf ahead of the game from the first few hours of life.

Table 1. Effect of serum Ig content on disease incidence and survival of calves

Blood IgG >10mg/ml <10mg/ml
Number with disease 10# 21#
% with disease 16.7# 56.8#
Number of deaths 1# 6#
% that died 1.7# 16.2#
Number of treatmentsd  
Respiratory disease 9 18
Enteric disease 10 18
Umbilical disease 0 2
Mean treatments per animal 0.32# 1.02#


The placental barrier means that no immunity is passed from cow to calf before birth. Calves are born immune incompetent and without adequate transfer of maternal immunoglobulins (Ig) will be at increased risk of pre- and post-weaning mortality due to infectious disease, will have reduced daily gain, feed efficiency, fertility, and milk production in first and second lactation Stilwell and Carvalho (2013).

Therefore it is vital that Ig within the cow’s colostrum are introduced to the calf and absorbed into the blood stream within the first 6 hours of birth. Antibodies cross the icow and calf in fieldntestinal border into the bloodstream through openings between the intestinal epithelial cells.

These openings begin to seal up as tight junctions between the intestinal cells begin to assemble six hours after birth or as soon as the first proteins (whether good or bad) are ingested by the calf. The presence of bacteria in colostrum also causes the closure of intracellular tight junctions triggered by the bacterial cell walls containing lipopolysaccharides.

It is frightening to think that a calf’s life can be determined by our actions in the first 6 hours after being born. Hygiene during the harvesting of colostrum is essential; Ensure dump buckets are clean and udders are meticulously clean before applying the clusters.


Taking control of feeding a calf rather than relying on it suckling the cow is the easiest way of ensuring your calves get the levels of immunoglobulins into the blood stream needed to survive. A study by Stilwell and Carvalho (2011) demonstrated that disease incidence and survival was significantly influenced by the effectiveness of Ig transfer from colostrum to the blood stream (Figure 1).

Snatching the calf away from the cow at calving and feeding pasteurised colostrum will help reduce the risk of the calf contracting diseases such as Johnes from infected dams.

Many people now know the gold standard is that a calf receives 10% of its body weight (40 kg calf/4 litres) of quality colostrum (50g/litre igG) within the first two hours of birth This is referred to as  the 3 Q’s of colostrum management, QUANTITY, QUALITY, QUICKLY.

The Ig in the blood are an essential part of immunity – they are proteins which bind to pathogens and allow them to be targeted and destroyed by the white blood cells and other non-specific members of the immune system. Until a calf is able to produce its own antibodies at around 2-3 months old they are very susceptible to disease especially if the colostrum received isn’t up to standard or managed correctly.

Measuring the Ig content of colostrum is essential as it ensures that only the best colostrum is used in the first few hours after birth. A colostrometer is a cheap and easy to use piece of kit which can give an immediate indication of the quality of colostrum being used. It is impossible to determine the quality just by looking at it.

The fresher the colostrum the better; having a portable milking machine or air line set up in the calving pen is the fastest way to harvest colostrum if a cow calves outside of milking times whilst also reducing stress and possible accidents happening when moving freshly calved cows to the parlour.

If, for example, a cow calves at 9:30 am after milking and you don’t milk her and feed the calf until 4:00 pm you have missed the 6 hour window. The gut wall will have begun to close down without absorbing the Ig into the blood. As the volume of milk in the udder increases post calving the quality of the colostrum begins to decline due to dilution.calf inside

A bank of high quality pasteurised and frozen colostrum is an excellent way of ensuring that there is always an adequate supply to hand. It ensures that the calf has the best chance of receiving an immediate feed and the level of Ig required. Perfect Udder bags can be used as an affordable option for freezing, storage and feeding the colostrum easily.  Purpose made machines are available for defrosting the colostrum safely without burning or denaturing the Ig. This approach is a real advantage in the race against time as the gut wall begins to close down.

The best way to determine if calves are receiving adequte colostrum of sufficient quality is to ask your vet to take some blood samples from young calves and test for igG levels.

This will give you a definitive result and indicate if enough colostrum of sufficient quality is being fed and the vital Ig are being transferred to the calf. Waldner and Rosengren (2009) monitored survival and treatment outcomes of over 900 calves in Canada and found that the blood IgG threshold for increased risk of death or treatment was 24mg/litre far higher than the target blood IgG concentration of 16mg/litre.

Wynnstay supply a colostrum management kit with all the equipment needed to help you manage your colostrum more effectively. Wynnstay calf specialists offer advice on protocols and best practice to ensure you manage your liquid gold more effectively.

Written by Tom Stephenson – Dairy Technical Specialist

Follow @tomstivy


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