Colostrum – Your Herd’s and Your Future

This article is based on and draws from a presentation by Mike van Amburgh, professor at Cornell University, delivered to the Western Canadian Dairy Seminar 2018.

Our dry cow is not producing IgG’s, she’s producing colostrum. Colostrum is far more than potential immune transfer to the new born calf. When the cow dries off there are many things going on in her mammary glands. Enormous amounts of cell proliferation driven by ‘growth factors’ and hormones that end up in colostrum. Our checking of colostrum quality for specific gravity (thickness) or with a Brix meter has ignored this massive physiological activity.

For example; the hormone relaxin. Reproductive physiologists working with pigs discovered a female piglet who receives relaxin in its first meal is likely to have a larger uterus and be more fertile than a piglet that does not receive relaxin. Our concern for protein, fat and immunoglobulins overlooks the litany of other ingredients such as: steroids, lactoferrin, insulin, glucagon, prolactin, growth hormone, IFG-1, leptin, TGF-alpha, cortisol and estradiol. These are all bioactive and drive metabolism.

In a research project at Cornell, calves fed 2 lts of colostrum were matched against those receiving 4 lts. Their diets were identical after this colostrum administration. The 4 lt colostrum calves had a 6 kg higher weaning weight than the 2 lt group. At 80 days old, the calves that gained 120 g more daily (4 lt group), had higher hip height implying they used dietary nutrients more efficiently. What colostrum did was set them up to be better animals.

Research has identified, various components of colostrum elicit biological responses, enhancing protein synthesis, increased enzyme expression and increased gastrointestinal tract development. This equates to more lean tissue while increased enzyme activity increases digestive capacity. Increased gastrointestinal tract enables more area to absorb nutrients and provides a better barrier to protect the calf from disease causing organisms and a better immune system.

From our own observations, ensuring adequate protein in the transition diet of the dam is critical for production of very high quality colostrum.

The calves that received 4 lts of colostrum had higher circulating glucose which continued for several days. Van Amburgh suspected this was due to higher intake of insulin at first feed. Insulin is responsible for the transport of glucose and there is a correlation between insulin and passive transfer of Ig for immunity. Although Ig absorption reduces dramatically within 24 hrs post-birth, for the benefit of the multitude of other beneficial ingredients in colostrum, it is recommended to feed colostrum for four days.

Following our setting up of our calves with 4 lts of high quality colostrum, then follows supplying adequate energy to take full advantage of the start we’ve given that calf; and there a few surprises in this.

In a thermo-neutral environment, a 40 kg calf requires 6.7 MJME of energy/day. However, at freezing point, that jumps to 13.5 MJME of energy – DOUBLE! A surprise to me was the knowledge of, and effect of skin to body weight ratio. A Jersey calf has 20% more skin surface area to body weight than a Holstein. Mother knows best: the Jersey dam puts higher fat into her infant formula. However, it is no wonder if we feed a Jersey calf 20:20 milk replacer it does not do well.

So what does all this add up to at the business end? Meta-analysis over a large number of heifers showed a 1,540 lts higher milk production in first lactation from additional daily gain prior to weaning. This is dramatic, and when compared to improved milk production from genetic gain, the figures are astounding, especially when this is a simple management issue: the data showed a 22% variation between the 2 lt and 4 lt colostrum calves in first lactation compared to 7% from genetic selection. This comes as no surprise because we know full well, feeding a dairy cow well has far greater impact on milk production and profit than genetics.

The dam is sending information in the form of colostrum components to set up her calf for a successful life. Unfortunately, our human intervention can certainly short-circuit this process. Our focus on both quality of colostrum and adequate volume administration probably borders on one of our best investment.


CALF SCOURS & Misconceptions

Misconception #1 Nutritional scours is a common problem in calves

A generation or two ago, nutritional scours was an issue, but today’s high quality/low cell count milk and calf powdered milks no longer carry scour causing organisms common in the past. Nutritional scours were diagnosed on the basis calves passing high amounts of manure. A calf consuming 0.8 kgs (6 lts x 13% solids) of milk solids daily will pass significant amounts of manure. Nutritional scours can occur through stress. Milk changes, environmental, transport, vaccination, weather, dehorning etc. However, these stress induced scours usually pass in a couple of days.

Misconception #2 Liquid manure is scours

As above, high milk intakes common today will produce liquid manure. Calves that are healthy, active and showing no signs of dehydration are unlikely to have scours.

Misconception #3 Electrolytes don’t work

There are electrolytes on the market that are very light-on in minerals and glucose. Perhaps veterinary advice is warranted here. Quality electrolytes are very effective in rehydration and mineral support when used correctly. They must be fed in between milk feedings as the water content is as important as the minerals.

Misconception #4 Type of scour can be identified by colour

Rotavirus, coronavirus and even increased milk can produce a white scour. Several bacterial strains can produce the same colour scour. Fecal culture is the only way to identify the type of scour.

Misconception #5 Scour type can be identified by calf age

It is true some diseases can occur based on days from birth (eg salmonella, e. coli etc). However, if the calf has a true scour, and not just high volume manure from a high plain of nutrition, then that can happen at any age.

Misconception #6 Reduce feed intake for sick calves

Many years ago the rule was ‘No milk while using electrolyte’. Most calves still died. Why? Starvation! Their energy requirement increases to support an energy-hungry immune system under challenge. Possibly, what had been said, was not to feed milk and electrolytes together.

Environmental hygiene goes without saying. There are a number of products on the market for disinfecting calf sheds. However, the most effective product we have witnessed is Vibrex. (Available from Roy Watson 0428 526 581 )

Ensuring calf nutrition is optimal, that is, timely administration of quality colostrum, that they are receiving adequate milk solids daily (fresh milk can vary – it pays to check – see Feb 20th article on refractometers), add to this CALFMAX containing essential minerals, vitamins, Bovatec, MOS, glucans and galactosamine, and disease and scours can largely be avoided.