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Randle: Getting calves off to a good start starts with colostrum

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

With wet, cold, snowy conditions, the ability of calves to get to their feet and nurse right after birth is extremely important. 

“Ideally, I would like to see a vigorous calf stand and nurse within two hours of birth, and repeatedly nurse by the time it is 12 hours old,” stated Richard Randle, University of Nebraska Extension veterinarian. 

Critical period

That short time frame, within the first six hours after birth, is the most critical time in the calf’s life, said Randle. It is the only time the newborn can absorb immunoglobulins (Ig or IgG) across the intestinal wall, which is vital for passive immunity.  

“Colostrum gives the calf all the protection it needs for the first few months of life,” Randle said. “The gut is open after birth to absorb colostrum in its full content without being broken down, but it starts to close 12 hours after birth and will be completely closed 24 hours after birth.”

Ideally, the calf needs eight to 10 percent of its body weight in colostrum, which is about a gallon, within six hours of birth to get maximum protection. Frequent feedings are best and will improve absorption. If the calf is too weak to nurse, it may need to be tubed to get the colostrum into its system to make it stronger.

“In situations that could impact the quality and quantity of colostrum available to newborn calves, colostrum replacement products may need to be considered,” Randle said. 

Alternative sources

While the best source of colostrum is the dam of the calf, an alternative source would be other dams from the same ranch because they will have similar antibodies. 

Randle encouraged ranchers to consider freezing some colostrum for cases when colostrum isn’t available. 

“I like to put it in one gallon ziploc bags,” he said. “I fill them half full, squeeze the air out and freeze them flat.”

“Producers can put them in hot water when they need to use the colostrum, and they will thaw and warm up in about 15 minutes. It usually provides just enough for one feeding,” he explained.

Commercial products

If colostrum isn’t available on the ranch, a producer may have to go with a commercial colostrum product. 

“There are a number of colostrum replacement products commercially available today,” Randle said. 

The key is making sure a colostrum replacement product is being purchased and not a supplement. 

These two products are similar, but colostrum replacements have higher concentrations of immunoglobulins that are intended to serve as a sole source of colostrum when the dam’s colostrum isn’t available. Colostrum replacers should contain more than 100 grams of IgG per dose, in addition to digestible proteins, vitamins and minerals.

Purchasing decisions

“There are other nutrients such as sugars, fats, vitamins and minerals in replacements, but there can be variability in the quality and digestibility of these products based on the source of these nutrients and the method of processing,” he explained. “Be sure to carefully read and follow the manufacturer’s instructions since products may vary in how they are mixed and the number of recommended feedings.”

Colostrum replacer can be made from colostrum that is dried and heat-treated to eliminate harmful agents or made from blood serum collected and dried from packinghouses. 

When purchasing these products, Randle encouraged producers to determine if the product is a colostrum replacer or supplement, if it is made from bovine colostrum or blood serum and if it is labeled with a claim for bovine IgG or just globulin proteins. 

He said producers should also make sure the product is licensed by the USDA as a replacer.


Colostrum is vital to getting newborns off to a good start. Randle said nearly 85 percent of calves dying from infectious diseases do so because they never received an adequate passive transfer of colostrum at birth.

“In an ideal situation, we want cows to give birth to healthy, vigorous calves with little or no calving difficulty,” he continued. “We want those calves to remain healthy and grow efficiently.” 

Colostrum provides IgG and other components that help that calf fight pathogens and develop an immune response. 

“Colostrum also provides nutrients such as lactose, fats and protein,” he added. 

Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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