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Colostrum: The performance-enhancing drug that sets the tone for future health and production

Wayne Shewfelt for Progressive Dairyman Published on 31 July 2018

Calf management programs have traditionally focused on calf survival and treatment rates. Traditional feeding strategies involved restricting the amount of milk or milk replacer offered to the calf to encourage grain intake in an effort to accelerate weaning, reduce the potential for scours and other illness, and reduce the cost of feeding and management.

However, evaluation of calf management data suggests strategies which decrease liquid feed intake do not significantly enhance starter intake and promote rumen development.



The principles of a successful calf-rearing program should not only be survival. A successful calf-rearing program should focus on performance, production and profitability of the replacement heifers as they become lactating herd members.

It is now understood higher protein feeding and its associated increase in pre-weaned growth rate appears to be a key factor in communicating with the tissues that enhance lifetime milk yield.

It has also been demonstrated good colostrum absorption impacts not only calf morbidity and mortality but future average daily gain and future lifetime productivity as well.

The cornerstone of any dairy producer’s calf-rearing program must be an excellent colostrum management program. We have been taught about how colostrum must be fed as soon after calving as possible, in adequate quantity and quality (immunoglobulin G greater than 22 percent Brix), and it must be clean (have low bacterial count).

Even with the amount of research and education about the importance of colostrum for the survivability of calves, many calves and many farms do not achieve proper levels of colostrum absorption.


This article is not just another typical colostrum discussion. Colostrum should be considered as a pharmaceutical or a performance-enhancing drug.

Understanding how colostrum can be a drug and how it positively affects the calf from birth to lactation should encourage producers to ensure their farm achieves excellent colostrum management.

The most important factor in dairy calf health and survival is feeding the newborn calf adequate amounts of high-quality colostrum early in its life.

The cost of raising replacement dairy animals increases if calf rearing results in higher-than-normal mortality or requires medicine to treat preventable diseases.

At birth, a calf has a poorly developed immune system. The placenta does not allow the transfer of antibodies, also known as immunoglobulins (Igs), from the mother to the fetus during pregnancy.

True colostrum is the “first milk,” which is rich with the antibodies that provide the calf protection from diseases in early life until the calf’s own immune system becomes fully functional (6 to 7 months old). Colostrum is also important as the first source of nutrients after birth.


Antibodies are proteins that identify and destroy disease-causing organisms, or pathogens, in the calf. Three major types of Igs (G, M and A) are typically found in the colostrum of dairy cows in percentages of 85 to 90 percent, 5 to 10 percent and 5 to 10 percent, respectively.

The three types of Igs have specific roles in the immune system. The primary role of IgG is to identify and help destroy invading pathogens.

IgG can move out of the bloodstream and into other areas of the body, where it helps identify pathogens. The principal role of IgM is to identify and destroy bacteria that have entered the blood. IgA attaches to the membranes that line many organs, such as the intestine, and prevents pathogens from attaching and causing disease.

In addition to the amounts of Igs (IgG, IgM and IgA), there are other very valuable proteins such as growth factors (IGF-1, IGF-2 growth hormone), hormones (insulin) and peptides.

Some growth factors (e.g., IGF-1) are specifically “activated” (in the case of IGF-1, separated from binding proteins) right around parturition. It is logical these proteins might play a critical role in establishing a baseline for future calf performance.

There are studies that provide excellent evaluation of the hypothesis colostrum proteins and growth factors can permanently affect an animal’s ability to make milk after calving.

There is very strong evidence the concept exists to describe the connection of milk-born factors, including colostrum, on the (epigenetic) future development of specific tissues and physiologic function.

There is a nutritional advantage colostrum has over whole milk (Table 1).

Typical analysis of colostrum, transitional milk and whole milk from Holsteins

This nutritional advantage ensures the needs of the newborn calf are provided for at birth. There are also major advantages for future survivability, reduced disease incidence and future milk production (Table 2).

Value of feeding increased colostrum volume

Table 2 highlights the disease reduction benefits of increased colostrum volume feeding. Each calf had $10 reduced veterinary costs. There is no additional cost for you to administer this drug: colostrum.

When you do this increased feeding, you also increase subsequent survivability and a production improvement of 955 kilograms as a milking 2-year-old and 1,653 kilograms in the second lactation.

This production improvement is realized with no increased cost by you. The colostrum is produced by your cow and only has to be extracted and fed to the newborn calf by you (as long as it is good-quality).

Table 3 illustrates colostrum as a performance-enhancing drug.

Do colostrum and milk volume work together?

Calves fed 4 litres of colostrum always outperformed their herdmates, even when high milk volume was fed during the pre-weaning period.

High-volume colostrum feeding plus high milk volume feeding outperformed low-volume colostrum feeding plus high milk volume feeding by increased average daily gain of 250 grams per day (0.2-kilogram average daily gain advantage). This average daily gain advantage is achieved with minimal or no input cost to you.

Other research studies indicate calves not receiving adequate colostrum grow at two-thirds the rate of other calves. Feed efficiency for the first six months of life can also be reduced by up to 50 percent when calves do not receive adequate colostrum.

Testing of colostrum quality

Testing equipment can be purchased to evaluate colostrum quality. A Brix refractometer is a simple, quick and cost-effective tool you can use on farm to determine the level of Igs in colostrum.

Readings of more than 22 on the Brix scale indicate the IgG concentrations are desirable. Simply apply a small amount of colostrum onto the “stage” of the Brix and view the grid to determine colostrum quality.

Excellent colostrum management has a significant impact on calf health and productivity realized not just during the pre-weaning period but into the second lactation and beyond.

Colostrum, due to its significant improvement in calf health and productivity, should be considered a pharmaceutical (a drug) and a performance-enhancing chemical.

This drug comes to you at no charge and is at your disposal upon the birth of every calf in your barn. Evaluating colostrum quality by utilizing a Brix refractometer to test the quality of colostrum on your farm is strongly advised.

In addition, have your calves’ blood tested for total protein to evaluate whether your calves are absorbing adequate levels of colostrum.  end mark

References omitted but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.

Wayne Shewfelt is a veterinarian with Tavistock Veterinarians email Wayne Shewfelt.