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Re-thinking early calf nutrition and performance

Fernando Sobero Published on 20 November 2012

After more than 55 years of focused research on colostrum, we have collectively agreed upon the fact that colostrum is beneficial, even vital, due to its role in passive transfer of immunoglobulins.

However, the story of colostrum continues to evolve with recent research, indicating that there is far more to colostrum than immunoglobulins.



Colostrum is a rich secretion that contains many additional non-nutritive factors that contribute to the well-being of calves. Consequently, the benefits of colostrum are sustained beyond the initial survival of the calf to impact lifetime performance.

Colostrum is traditionally appreciated by dairy farmers for its role in keeping the newborn calf alive and healthy.

However, researchers have linked colostrum status and colostrum intake with substantial benefits later in life such as improved average daily gains (ADG) pre-puberty, increased feed efficiency measured in increased bodyweight by 180 days and decreased time to first calving, as well as increased milk production during the first lactation.

For example, research in 2005 fed Brown Swiss calves four litres or two litres of colostrum at birth and managed the calves equally afterwards.

The calves fed four litres of colostrum had increased ADG pre-puberty, 12 percent better survival by the end of their second lactation and 1,030 kilograms more milk during the first two lactations.


A recent study at Cornell University aimed at understanding the interaction between colostrum fed at birth and nutrient intake pre-weaning.

Calves were fed either four litres or two litres of colostrum within the first hour of life and half of the calves on each colostrum treatment were offered five litres of milk replacer for 46 days, while the other calves were offered up to 12 litres of the same milk replacer for 46 days.

Starting on day 47, milk replacer intake was gradually reduced until weaning at 52 days. All calves were housed in a single group pen and fed with an automatic feeder that recorded daily intakes.

All of the calves on this study had proper passive transfer, measured through blood samples at 48 hours of life (> 12 mg per ml).

Calves that were limit-fed to five litres per day had similar ADG regardless of the amount of colostrum fed at birth (0.35 + 0.04 kg per day).

However, calves offered 12 litres per day of milk replacer demonstrated greater ADG when they had four litres of colostrum at birth (0.78 kg per day) versus calves offered only two litres of colostrum at birth (0.55 kg per day).


Figure 1
Only calves fed four litres of colostrum and allowed up to 12 litres of milk replacer pre-weaning achieved the golden rule of doubling their birthweight by weaning (Figure 1).

Differences in calf performance as a result of initial colostrum and milk replacer levels continued to be evident post-weaning.

Table 1
Calves that received four litres versus two litres of colostrum at birth had higher dry matter intake (2.8 vs. 2.2 kg per day; Table 1) during the post-weaning period; this effect was independent of previous milk replacer intake.

In addition, calves that received four litres of colostrum had greater overall feed efficiency regardless of milk replacer treatment (0.38 vs. 0.32 kg gain:kg dry matter).

When discussing best management practices for dairy calves, it is important to balance the needs of newborn calves with the viability of a management practice.

There is some concern about administering four litres of colostrum through an esophageal tube to a newborn calf, especially when considering calves weighing less than 35 kilograms.

Very few dairy producers are able to work with a newborn calf every half hour until she ingests four litres of colostrum by herself.

However, when given the option between using an esophageal tube to provide four litres at birth versus only administering two litres and not offering more until six to eight hours later, both scientific and empirical data overwhelmingly show benefits to providing four litres of colostrum at birth.

I have personally provided four litres of colostrum via an esophageal tube to twin Holstein calves born at 32 kilograms; after receiving their colostrum they had a full belly and slept for almost 10 hours.

Then, 12 hours after birth, when approached with a two-litre bottle of colostrum, both got up and drank the entire bottle without any problem.

There are several large farms in the U.S. that have been using the esophageal feeder to routinely provide four litres of colostrum to as many as 15 newborn calves per day without incident.

Through this management practice, these farms have been able to achieve excellent passive transfer, improved growth and performance potential of their calves while managing time and labour in an efficient manner.

Proper handling of newborn calves includes providing the calf with sufficient, clean colostrum of good quality. This practice is also required for bull calves.

In order to properly supply the proper amount of colostrum to all calves, dairy farmers must pay attention to the actual harvesting of colostrum.

Many farms routinely discard the colostrum produced by first-calf heifers. Colostrum from primiparous cattle on average contains a lower concentration of IgG’s than colostrum from multiparous cattle.

However, the quality of the colostrum in both primiparous and multiparous cattle have a normal distribution and colostrum from primiparous cattle can be of excellent quality, especially when sufficient quantities of colostrum are offered.

The biggest detriment to colostrum quality is the amount of time elapsed between calving and the harvesting of colostrum.

Researchers sampled colostrum at two, six, 10 and 14 hours postpartum in order to evaluate the effects of time harvested on colostrum IgG concentration.

They found a decrease in IgG content of colostrum that corresponded to increased time post-calving; IgG concentration two hours post-calving was 113 grams per litre and significantly decreased to 94, 82 and 76 grams per litre at six, 10 and 14 hours, respectively. Similar results have been observed by others.

Moreover, colostrum contains a large array of hormones and growth factors such as IGF-I, IGF-II, insulin, growth hormone, lactoferrin, leptin and relaxin in addition to a number of short-chain fatty acids that can contribute to the metabolic development of the gut as well as the metabolism of the newborn calf.

The hormone relaxin in colostrum has been linked in other species with the development of the uterus. Leptin is a well-known regulator of the appetite.

All of these hormones and growth factors could be contributing to the increased performance observed later in life when increased colostrum was fed to dairy calves.

In general, the dairy industry has exhibited a tendency to underestimate the importance of early-life development. It is important to remember that whatever happens to a newborn calf during the first months of life will affect its performance for life.

Colostrum, when properly harvested and stored, is the best way to start shaping the future of your upcoming top producers … and in contrast to any other management tool, it is free and available at every dairy farm.

Next time a calf is born, remember four litres during the first two hours of life and another two litres within 12 hours and you will be setting her up for success.  PD

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