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Utilizing alternative options for colostrum provide the best chance to the calf

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

There are a number of reasons a calf might not suckle its dam right away or may not be able to suckle at all.  

The dam might be a heifer that refuses to mother the calf or an older cow with large teats the calf can’t get onto, or a newborn calf born in cold weather might have been too chilled and the rancher brought him indoors to thaw him out.  Or maybe the dam died or had no milk for some reason.

When the producer knows the calf hasn’t suckled, some kind of colostrum alternative is used.  

“Here at our clinic we use a lot of powdered colostrum products,” says Andy Acton, veterinarian at Deep South Animal Clinic in Ogema, Saskatchewan.  


“When I graduated from vet school there was only one product available made from whey, and it only had 20 grams of immunoglobulins (Ig),” Acton comments. “It would have taken more than five of those bags to get an adequate amount of IgG, however, so it just wasn’t practical.”

Another option some stockmen use is dairy colostrum, but it’s not the best choice.  

“Because of the volume produced by a dairy cow with less concentrated antibodies, we have to give the calf twice as much to get enough benefit,” he explains. “Using dairy colostrum in years past was probably a way to bring diseases like Johne’s or salmonella into a beef herd.”

  For biosecurity purposes, Acton says it’s best to use colostrum from a cow in the producer’s own herd.

“Some people also may not realize it’s only the first milking that we should use for colostrum – whether from a dairy cow or beef cow. The colostrum is soon diluted by regular milk,” he says. “Today it’s not advisable to use dairy colostrum because we now have better quality colostrum replacers.”

“The commercial replacements don’t have the cellular components found in fresh colostrum, because those cells won’t survive the processing, but they do have fairly good IgG levels,” Acton explains, noting one to two 100-gram packages will provide a calf with adequate immunity to seemingly perform as well as a calf that nursed from its mother.” 

He adds, “It is certainly better than nothing.”  

From the herd

The best option, however, is to milk some extra colostrum from your own herd, to freeze and save for later use.

If a cow in the herd produces a lot of colostrum – more than her calf can consume at first nursing – or a calf dies at birth and the rancher wants to save that cow’s colostrum for another calf, they can milk her and freeze the colostrum for future use.

“We recommend putting about one quart of colostrum into a Zip-lock freezer bag and freezing the bag flat, like a pancake,” Acton says. “We can stack these packages in the freezer.”  

These flat packages, with a lot of surface area, thaw out very quickly when placed in warm water — a lot quicker than a regular pint or quart container.  The frozen colostrum, thawed and warmed to calf body temperature, can be very helpful when ranchers need some.

Using frozen colostrum

Frozen colostrum is handy for use in emergencies, and it keeps very well without losing quality for at least six months or longer.  

Acton says ranchers could collect some at the start of their calving season and it would be fine for use that season – or even the next year if need be. He adds, even if it’s a year old, frozen colostrum will still be better than anything a rancher can buy.  

The only thing ranchers need to be careful about is defrosting the frozen colostrum so the antibody proteins aren’t destroyed with hot temperatures, he explains.

Acton notes it’s best to defrost the frozen colostrum in warm water, rather than in a microwave.  

Calming the cow

“After a cow has calved and we want to milk colostrum from her, if we have to restrain her, such as by using a head-catch, to collect it, we suggest giving her at least one milliliter of oxytocin before milking her, so she will let down her milk,” Acton explains. “We can get a lot more from her – and more easily – with oxytocin.” 

If a cow is worried or upset, she will hold up her milk, he says.

Producers can often sneak up beside a gentle cow that produces a lot of colostrum, if she’s in a confined area like a small pen or a barn stall, as she is letting her own calf suck. 

Then, Acton says she will let her milk down nicely for her calf and ranchers can milk out the extra they need.  

“For some of our clients who are milking out some colostrum, we may suggest using a small dose of a mild sedative. This is something a producer could discuss with their own veterinarian,” Acton adds. “This will relax the cow if she’s nervous.”  

“If this is probably the only time in her life that the cow will ever be milked, she could likely hold up her milk. If she is relaxed, we will be much more successful,” he says.  

“The sedative and oxytocin can be given together as an injection,” he continues.

Collecting colostrum

Acton also recommends using a cup or small pitcher to milk into, rather than a large container, like an ice cream bucket. 

He notes milking into a large container is risky because, if the cow kicks, the rancher may get hurt and also lose the colostrum.

“We milk into a small container that can be held with one hand and can be quickly pulled out of the way,” he says.

A small, plastic pitcher with a handle works nicely – the smaller the better, according to Acton. 

“We can dump the small container into a larger container that is safely kept away from the cow,” he adds. “Then, if we lose some because she kicks, we don’t lose all the colostrum.”  

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

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