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Randle: Starting calves off right begins with high-quality colostrum

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

With the 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,” states Richard Randle, University of Nebraska Extension veterinarian. 

Critical phase

That short-time frame, within the first six hours after birth, is the most critical time in the calf’s life. It is the only time the newborn can absorb immunoglobulins 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 says. “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 the maximum protection. 

Frequent feedings are the best and will improve absorption, Randle explains. 

If the calf is too weak to nurse, it may need to be tubed to get the colostrum into its system and make it stronger.

Replacement products

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

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, he says. 

Randle encourages ranchers to consider freezing some colostrum, when they have extra available, for cases when colostrum is short. 

“I like to put it in one-gallon Ziploc bags,” he says. “I fill them half full, squeeze the air out and freeze them flat. We can put them in hot water when we need to use them, and they thaw and warm up in about 15 minutes.” 

“It usually provides just enough for one feeding,” he explains.

Commercial options

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 says. 

The key is making sure a colostrum replacement product being purchased is not a supplement. These two products are similar, but colostrum replacements have higher concentrations of immunoglobulins (Ig), (IgG) 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.

“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 explains. 

“Be sure to carefully read and follow the manufacturer’s instructions since the products may vary in how they are mixed and the number of recommended feedings,” Randle notes.

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

When purchasing these products, Randle encourages 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.

Vital product

Colostrum is vital to getting newborns off to a good start. 

Randle says 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 difficulties,” he continues. “We want those calves to remain healthy and grow efficiently.” 

Colostrum provides immunoglobulins 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 adds. 

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

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