Malatya Haber Colostrum intake affects long-term cattle performance
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Colostrum intake affects long-term cattle performance

By Robin Slattery

River Valley District Extension District Agent, Animal Science

With calving season in full swing for some operations and just around the corner for others, being prepared for the unexpected is critical. Colostrum intake by the newborn calf has gained more attention in recent years and researchers have found some startling relationships with lifetime cattle performance. A two-year study by the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center found calves with inadequate colostrum intake were three times more likely to get sick, five times more likely to die, and an average 35 pounds lighter at weaning than calves with adequate colostrum intake. Performance of these calves was also tracked through the feedyard and it was found that calves with inadequate colostrum were still three times more likely to get sick and gained 24 pounds less over the feeding period.

There is no doubt colostrum is important, but how much is enough? Colostrum contains antibodies that will be absorbed directly though the gut wall into the bloodstream in the first 24 hours of life. Timing of consumption is critical, because absorption decreases rapidly over this period. Current recommendations are for a calf to consume 10 percent of its body weight (.5-1 gallon) within the first one or two hours of birth ideally, with a critical threshold being 12 hours of life. If a calf is weak from a difficult birth, a heifer does not produce much milk, or a cow has mastitis or teat problems, it may be time to step in and assist that calf to receive adequate colostrum.

Natural colostrum from your own herd is best. If you have calf die at birth, or have a heavy milk producing cow, it pays to milk out some of her colostrum to have on hand for later emergencies. Colostrum can be refrigerated for up to a week or frozen up to a year before significant breakdown of immunoglobulin (antibody concentration) occurs. Traditionally, colostrum could be brought in from other herds such as dairies, but this also brings in disease risks that your herd may not have been exposed to previously and is now not recommended.

Commercially available colostrum supplements and replacers are a good option if colostrum is not available from your own herd. Colostrum supplements are recommended when low to medium quality natural colostrum is available (such as a low milking heifer). Colostrum replacements contain higher immunoglobulin concentrations and provide antibodies similar to natural colostrum, so are good to use when the mother is totally unavailable. Studies have found that calves fed colostrum replacers have performed as well as calves receiving natural colostrum.

The bottom line is to monitor your herd during calving season and make sure calves are getting up and nursing promptly after birth, observe that cows are providing adequate colostrum, and be prepared with stored or commercial colostrum when the unexpected happens.


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