Colostrum Management

Colostrum is the foundation of a healthy calf and many people have fine-tuned the art of providing the calf with 10% of birth weight within the first 6 hours of life. Why then do we still tend to find problems with calves scouring and generally not doing so well?

Sam Leadley, Attica Vets US suggests that good colostrum management starts by harvesting ‘clean colostrum’. In this article he advises some simple protocols that can be implemented on any farm.

Feeding Clean Wholesome Colostrum

We all want to raise healthy calves. Getting calves off to a good start by feeding colostrum is the foundation on which we can build an excellent calf rearing program.

  • QUICKLY Feed colostrum as soon after birth as practical – 4 out of 5 calves within 4 hours is a good goal.
  • QUANTITY Feed enough colostrum – best management suggests 200g of antibodies in the first feeding.
  • QUALITY Feed high quality colostrum – a minimum of 50g/l is a practical minimum threshold.

WAIT! What happened to clean and wholesome? Yes, you can follow all three of the best colostrum management practices above (Quickly, Quantity, Quality) and still not have healthy calves? Why? Because the calf’s first meal, colostrum, could be contaminated with bacteria.

What are practical ways to reduce bacterial contamination of colostrum?

First, minimise inoculation.
Clean teats at first milking. The recommended protocol for getting clean teats at first milking after calving is: (fore-stripping may be added as desired)

  1. Brush contaminants from teats (for example, straw and sawdust)
  2. Dip all teat surfaces with an effective pre-dip
  3. Wait – give the dip an opportunity to destroy bacteria – 30 seconds.
  4. Wipe.
  5. Dip a second time and wait 30 seconds.
  6. Wipe giving special attention to the teat ends.

Clean collection pail or bucket. Regular scrubbing of these buckets (usually stainless steel) will include these steps:

  1. Rinse with lukewarm water to remove milk residue
  2. Wash with hot water (always above 50°C) using a chlorinated detergent and brushing thoroughly3. Rinse with an acid solution if next use is likely to be more than 12 hours.
  3. Turn upside down to dry.

Second, minimize growth of the few bacteria that do get into the colostrum.
If we are realistic most of us have to admit that collecting sterile colostrum is not too practical on a dairy farm. So our next question is how to minimize the growth of these intruders?

The most simple and practical way to prevent bacterial growth is to feed the colostrum to a calf. The conditions in her digestive tract (low pH, digestive juices) are not usually favourable for bacterial growth. A good rule of thumb is to feed fresh colostrum within 30 minutes after it is collected for most favourable bacteria control.

However, if we are going to delay feeding longer than 30 minutes we need to think about some way to slow down the growth process – a simple, inexpensive method would be good. The growth rate of bacteria in colostrum is determined by the availability of nutrients (high), pH (not easy to change), and the temperature (can be changed).

Thus, our least expensive and practical way to slow down the growth process is to chill colostrum. Coliform bacteria will double every 20 minutes at cow body temperature (38.5°C) but this doubling takes 200 minutes at 16°C.

Methods to chill warm colostrum to 16° within 30 minutes:

Ice-bath method
Pour colostrum into containers. Containers holding about 2 litres work well for this purpose. Place them into any kind of tub or bucket with enough water to ¾ cover the containers – avoid water levels that are too high because containers will often tip over and leak colostrum into the water. Maintain enough ice in the water so that it is visible at all times – about 30 minutes should take the
colostrum down to 16°C.

Ice immersion method
Prepare bottles of ice before the need to chill colostrum. Frequently 1L, 2L or 4L containers are convenient sizes – fill only ¾ full of water and freeze. Always be sure to have the outside surfaces clean. Place the ice containers into the warm colostrum. Add ice at the rate of 1 part ice to 4 parts of colostrum to chill to 16°C within 30 minutes.

Written by Rebecca Richards – Calf Specialist

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