All farmers know that feeding colostrum in the first few hours of life is crucial to ensuring a calf’s immune system is as strong as possible. Colostrum promotes intestinal maturation, and the antibodies and nutrients it contains reduces the likelihood of disease, such as scours or pneumonia. However, when rearing calves, it is crucial the ‘four Q’s’ are considered, as failing to do so will negatively impact calf health.
The Carr’s Billington calf and youngstock team have provided some top tips to remember when applying the four Q’s.
The four Q’s
Quality and Quantity
If colostrum is being taken from the dam, it should be done so within the first two hours after birth. The longer it is kept in the udder, the greater the risk of the quality declining, as the cow will start to re-absorb the antibodies and nutrients.
- If colostrum is taken from the dam, ensure she hasn’t tested positive for Johne’s disease
- Do not pool raw colostrum from different cows as this lowers the overall quality and increases the risk of disease
- The dam’s body score condition at calving and her pre-calving diet will have an impact on her colostrum quality.
If feeding a powdered colostrum, our experts recommend feeding a 100% dried bovine colostrum rather than a supplement type colostrum. This will mean that you can be sure calves receive all the vital nutrients and antibodies they require, whilst promoting absorbability. New-born calves need to consume 200g of antibodies within their first feed to ensure they have the best chance of obtaining passive immunity.
Colostrum quality will vary between cows, so it is recommended the colostrum is tested using a refractometer. When using a Brix refractometer, a reading of 22% is the target, as this equates to 50g of antibodies per litre.
Calves should receive 4 litres, or 10% of their body weight, in their first feed. Jersey cow colostrum is typically higher in quality compared to Holsteins, so jersey calves may only require a 3L feed to receive 200g of antibodies.
Calves should be fed another similar sized colostrum feed within 12 hours of birth.
Antibody level testing
Testing your calves’ blood for the antibody levels (IgG) or Total Protein (TP) will help identify any potential issues with colostrum management. You can ask your vet to test calves between 24 hours and 7 days old. The aim is for 80% or more of the calves tested to indicate a ‘good’ level of IgG and TP.
GOOD= >12 IgG g/L, >55 TP g/L
MODERATE= 10-12 IgG g/L, 50-55 TP g/L
POOR= <10 IgG g/L, <50 TP g/L
To ensure calves have the healthiest immune system possible, they should be fed within the first two hours of birth. Once the calf is born, its ability to absorb antibodies will start to decline, so time really is of the essence.
If the calf has been taken from the dam, colostrum can be administered by a nipple bottle but remember, if calves aren’t sucking the recommended volume of colostrum, a stomach tube should be used.
Top tip: To reduce the risk of disease in new-born calves, the calving box needs to be as sterile as possible. As soon as the calf has been licked clean by the dam, it should be moved into its own clean pen and fed colostrum there.
Colostrum should be given quietly as this will minimise calf stress and maximise antibody absorption.
Collecting and storing colostrum
Any colostrum collected from the dam should be done so with clean hands or gloves and put into a clean container with a lid.
If colostrum becomes contaminated, a calf’s uptake of antibodies will decline, leaving them more susceptible to diseases such as septicaemia or diarrhoea. Bacteria within colostrum will double every 20 minutes if left at room temperature after collecting, so it should be covered and, if it’s not fed straight away, stored in a fridge or freezer.
Make sure the fridge is set to 4°C and use the colostrum within 72 hours or set the freezer to between -18 to -20°C and use within six months.
Labelling the containers with the date of collection and cow’s number will enable the identification of potential sources of disease outbreaks. It will also mean colostrum that has been stored for longer than the recommended period isn’t used, as it’s quality will have deteriorated.
Top tip for reheating colostrum: Do not use a microwave or hot water to defrost colostrum as this will destroy the antibodies within it. Allow it to defrost at room temperature and then warm in a water bath no hotter than 40ᵒC.
Make sure all staff follow the same on-farm calf management protocols which should include best colostrum feeding practices. This will help to ensure any issues with colostrum quality or calf health that are linked to colostrum management can be identified and resolved.
All feeding equipment should also be thoroughly cleaned after each use to prevent bacterial build up and the risk of passing on disease to calves. Read more about on-farm biosecurity and hygiene in our calf management blog.