Colostrum Management A Cornerstone For Dairy Calf Health
Many bovine veterinarians consider high-quality nutrition – especially colostrum – as the cornerstone for dairy calf health.
Sandra Godden, DVM, University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine, goes even a step further. She says colostrum management is the single most important factor determining calf health and survival. One reason for that is calves are born with little or no immunoglobulins and rely on colostrum to provide immune factors such as IgG.1, 2
Transfer of Passive Immunity
Colostrum must be fed to calves soon following birth because the absorption of IgG is minimal by 24 hours of age, after which immunoglobulins can no longer be absorbed. Furthermore, to obtain the recommended quantity of colostral IgG, calves should be fed at least 10% of their birth weight in the first feeding.1
Godden says many North American dairies could benefit from addressing the passive transfer of antibodies from colostrum, which can help prevent high preweaning mortality rates and other short- and long-term losses associated with animal health, welfare and productivity.
“Fourteen percent of U.S. dairy calves fail (to get passive transfer of antibodies). In the average herd, there is still a large opportunity to improve this,” she says, citing a 2014 study by the USDA National Animal Health Monitoring System (NAHMS).
Godden addressed the topic of colostrum management during a recent American Association of Bovine Practitioners (AABP) annual conference.3
Calves are categorized as having poor passive immunity if their serum IgG concentration is less than 10 g/L when measured between 1 and 7 days of age.4
The average cost of failed passive transfer in a dairy calf is cited by one meta-analysis as $70, Godden says. She believes out-of-pocket losses could be even greater because the meta-analysis ignored or did not take into consideration the lifetime production of the individual animal.
USDA Study Based On 104 Dairies In 13 Key States
The NAHMS study found that 12% of 1,623 Holstein heifer calves participating in the research had a “poor” ability to achieve passive transfer of antibodies from colostrum. Nearly 27% had a “fair” ability.
Furthermore, the study showed that nearly 50% of calves with poor passive immunity had multiple risk factors:
- 46.2% were administered poor quality colostrum;
- 36.6% did not get their first feeding of colostrum within four hours following birth;
- 58.8% were fed a low total volume of colostrum within 24 hours of birth.
The most important factors related to colostrum management are the quality and quantity of colostrum fed, the timing of feeding colostrum, and cleanliness of the colostrum.5 These factors are critical in providing calves with passive immunity. The study defined high-quality colostrum as having greater than 50 g/L concentration of IgG.
4 Key Recommendations From The Study
The NAHMS made the following recommendations, based on the study results:
1. Use a Brix refractometer to measure colostrum quality. Feed colostrum with a Brix reading of at least 22 percent, which equates to an IgG concentration of more than 50 g/L.5. Less than 20% of operations in the study measured colostrum quality.
2. For their first feeding, calves should receive at least 10% of their body weight in colostrum: approximately 3.9 L (4 qt) for an average-sized calf of 40 kg (~85 lb).4
3. Feed colostrum as soon as possible following birth, or at least within four to six hours of birth.2
4. Measure passive immunity status in calves aged 2 to 7 days. Passive immunity can be measured using serum IgG or serum total proteins. IgG concentrations equal to or greater than 10 g/L at 24 hours of age indicate adequate passive immunity.5
Is It Possible To Feed Calves Too Much Milk?
Some producers might push back on the amount of colostrum young calves should be fed – saying young calves will scour from having too much milk – but Godden says that is a myth.
“Feeding large volumes does not cause milk scours,” she says.
When offered ad libitum access to clean, high-quality milk or milk replacer in the first days of life, dairy calves will drink an average of 8 liters per day by 4 days of age, and individual calves will drink up to 12 liters per day, without causing scours. Godden adds that recent studies have reported a positive association between milk consumption very early in life on health as well as growth.
1Quigley JD, Drewry JJ. 1998. Nutrient and immunity transfer from cow to calf pre- and postcalving. Journal of Dairy Science 81 (10), 2779–2790.
2BAMN. 2001. A guide to colostrum and colostrum management for dairy calves. Accessed March 29, 2016. Available at: https://www.aphis.usda.gov/animal_health/nahms/dairy/downloads/bamn/BAMN01_Colostrum.pdf
3S. M. Godden, W. A. Knauer. Management Considerations to Prevent Respiratory Disease in Group-housed Preweaned Dairy Calves. American Association of Bovine Practitioners Proceedings of the Annual Conference. 2021.
4Godden S. 2008. Colostrum management for dairy calves. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Food Animal Practice 24 (1), 19– 39.
5Furman-Fratczak K, Rzasa A, Stefaniak T. 2011. The influence of colostral immunoglobulin concentration in heifer calves’ serum on their health and growth. Journal of Dairy Science, 94 (11), 5536–5543.
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