Colostrum and Calf Productivity: A Review

Recent studies at Penn State have shown that 20-25% of veal and dairy-beef calves do not receive colostrum prior to sale.
Colostrum and Calf Productivity: A Review - Articles


Newborn calves have very little concentration of serum immunoglobulins at birth, and it has been shown that failure to provide the immunoglobulins through colostrum will result in greater incidence of infectious disease (Gay, 1983.) Serum IgG1 levels of 10 mg/ml will usually be sufficient to protect these calves under most conditions (Gay, 1983.)

Ongoing field studies by Wilson, Varga, and Comerford at Penn State have clearly shown 20-25% of veal and dairy-beef calves do not receive colostrum prior to sale as "bob" calves.

Colostrum Quality

Several factors influence the quality (immunoglobulin mass) of colostrum. These factors include the number of milkings prior to colostrum feeding of the calf, dam breed, first-milking colostrum volume, parity of the cow, and milk fat production of the cow.

Second or later milkings of colostrum contain significantly lower Ig concentrations than the first milking (Oyeniyi and Hunter, 1978). Calf feeding or colostrum storage should be done with the first milking after calving, preferably within 8 hours (Pritchett et al., 1991.)

Holstein cows have been shown to produce colostrum of relatively low Ig concentration (Pritchett, et al., 1991; Kruse, 1970; Penhale and Christie, 1969.) In one study only 29% of first milkings from Holstein cows produced 100g of IgG in a 2-liter feeding (Pritchett et al., 1991), while the average intake is 2.4 liters in the first 24 hrs of life (Stott et al., 1979.) Part of the reason for this result is the Ig concentration in colostrum is relatively constant, regardless of milk volume. Therefore, feedings of larger volume are needed to achieve a required Ig intake from heavier-milking cows. Secondly, milk fat production is positively correlated with Ig concentration in first-milking colostrum (Pritchett et al., 1991.) Cow and breed variations in fat percentage may indicate a lower Ig concentration in colostrum.

Colostral Ig concentration is higher in third or higher parities (Pritchett et al., 1991.) On many dairy farms this may be a limiting factor to feeding and storage of quality colostrum to bull calves. Where possible, it may be necessary to feed stored colostrum from lower-producing, older cows to calves born to 2- and 3-yr old cows to insure adequate colostrum Ig intake. Pooling of colostrum from several cows is common practice, but some research has indicated there is a lower Ig absorption in the calf from a lower colostral Ig concentration (Besser, Gay, and McGuire, 1983) due to the dilution of colostrum from higher-producing cows in the herd. However, body condition at calving in either beef or dairy cattle did not change total Ig level at calving, but concentration was relative (inversely proportional) to total production at first milking (Odde, 1988.)

Colostrum Feeding

Most evidence suggests that natural suckling will result in greater efficiency of Ig absorption. For most breeds of beef cattle in conventional production environments, effective Ig intake and absorption is easily achieved. However, natural suckling of dairy calves may not be effective or possible. In calves from Holstein cows, adequate intake of Ig may be compromised by low Ig concentration in colostrum, low colostrum intake, or failure to allow feeding before sale of male calves. The optimum IgG1 concentration in a 2- liter feeding would be 100g IgG1/45 kg body weight (Kruse, 1970; Besser, Gay, and Pritchett, 1991.) The Pritchett (1991) study indicated only 29% of the first milkings from Holstein cows would have a sufficiently high IgG1 concentration to meet this requirement.

Artificial methods of feeding usually include nipple bottle feeders or stomach tubes. The nipple bottle may more effectively mimic natural suckling and trigger the esophageal groove reflex and deliver the colostral meal directly to the abomasum (Lateur-Rowet and Breukink, 1983.) When low colostral volume is fed (less than 1.5 l) studies have shown there is significantly lower resulting serum Ig levels from stomach tubes compared to nipple feeders (Zaremba et al., 1984.)

Any delay in the time of colostral feeding after the first few hours of life will reduce the absorptive capacity of the calf. The complete loss of ability to absorb Ig across the intestinal wall occurs at 24 to 36 hrs after birth (Stott et al., 1979.) Other than induced separation, the length of time after birth to first feeding can be increased due to dystocia and perinatal asphyxia. In artificial feeding systems, maximal Ig absorption is accomplished by feeding as soon after birth as possible.

Large colostrum feedings are necessary on most dairy farms to get effective Ig levels in the calf. While colostrum feedings of 1-2 liters will minimize the chances of E.coli-type infections, serum IgG1 levels of greater than 10 mg/ml are necessary to help reduce certain enteric and respiratory diseases (Gay, 1983.) Compounding the problem is the low Ig concentration generally found in Holstein cows. This implies single feedings of colostrum within a few hours of birth should be about 4 liters for a normal sized calf. Studies have shown these large feedings by stomach tube are not detrimental to calf health or productivity (Besser, Gay, and Pritchett, 1991) The latter study also showed calves bottle-fed 2 liters of colostrum at birth and at 12 hrs of age were less likely to absorb sufficient IgG1 concentrations than those fed a single 3.5 liter feeding.

Calf Production

Limited research has shown there is a positive correlation in dairy heifers between total serum Ig concentration shortly after birth (as a measure of passively acquired immunity) and calf average daily gain, perinatal mortality, and subsequent productivity in the first lactation (Robison et al., 1988 and DeNise et al., 1989.) The effects of passive immunity appeared to be strongest at 70 to 105 days of age. Heifer calves that had 12 to 18 mg/ml or less total serum Ig levels 24 to 48 hrs after birth tended to have double the mortality rate of those with more than 18 mg/ml. Further, a larger percentage of the deaths occurred after 70 days of age in those heifers with lower Ig levels shortly after birth. This result has implications in many dairy-beef systems where calves are frequently lost during the typical "Stage Two" period at 50 to 90 days of age.

The study of Nocek et al. (1984) showed calves receiving even low (<45 mg/ml total Ig) quality colostrum will gain almost twice as much weight in the first 45 days of life compared to calves receiving no colostrum. Calf mortality was ten to twenty times higher in calves receiving no colostrum. Incidence of scours and high body temperatures were also considerably higher in calves deprived of colostrum in this report.

Recent study of colostrum has shown it contains many growth factors and hormones. Deaver and Baumrucker at Penn State have demonstrated prolactin in colostrum is related to increases in blood prolactin after colostrum feeding. Several other studies have shown hormones and growth factors in colostrum may be related to sexual development of the calf. A preliminary report by Deaver et al. (1992) indicated LH secretion and 42-week testicular weight was greater for bull calves receiving colostrum than those not receiving colostrum after birth. However, the numbers of calves were very small and the study will continue.


It is quite evident calves must receive some level of passively-acquired immunity through colostrum in order to remain healthy and productive for up to 6 months of age. Colostrum concentration at first milking is highly variable, but this is largely due to milk volume at first milking. Therefore, heavy-milking Holstein cows produce colostrum of very low Ig concentration, so intake at first feeding may need to be 4 liters for a normal sized calf. Dairy farmers may increase colostrum quality by storing colostrum from the lowest-producing cows in the herd. Colostrum feeding should occur within the first few hours after birth since closure may begin by 24 hrs of age. Failure to receive colostrum will result in devastating mortality (50% or more), and lower serum Ig levels are associated with reduced growth for up to 6 months of age. Field studies indicate 20-25% of calves reaching veal and dairy-beef grower units receive little, if any, colostrum. Higher rates of scours, elevated body temperature, and increased calf mortality will certainly result among these calves.


  • Aldridge, B., Franklin Garry, and R. Adams. 1992. Role of colostral transfer in neonatal calf management: failure of acquisition of passive immunity. Food Animal Compendium, North American Edition. 14:2, article #8.
  • Besser, T. E., C. C. Gay, and T. C. McGuire. 1983. Serum IgG1 concentrations acquired by calves fed dam vs pooled colostrum. Proceedings of the 4th International Symposium on Neonatal Diarrhea. pp 379-385. Veterinary Infectious Disease Organization, Saskatoon, Sask.
  • Besser, T. E., C. C. Gay, and L. Pritchett. 1991. Comparison of three methods of feeding colostrum to dairy calves. J. Am. Vet. Med. Assoc. 198:419.
  • Deaver, D. R., M. A. Bhatti, and K. D. Nusser. 1992. Do hormones/growth factors found in colostrum affect development of bull calves? Proceedings of the 14th Technical Conference on Artificial Insemination and Reproduction.
  • Denise, S. K., J. D. Robison, G. H. Stott, and D. V. Armstrong. 1989. Effects of passive immunity on subsequent production in dairy heifers. J. Dairy Sci. 72:552.
  • Gay, C. C. 1983. Failure of passive transfer of colostral antibodies and neonatal disease in calves: a review. Proceedings of the 4th International Symposium on Neonatal Diarrhea. pp 346. Veterinary Infectious Disease Organization, Saskatoon, Sask.
  • Kruse, V. 1970. Yield of colostrum and immunoglobulin in cattle at first milking after parturition. Anim. Prod. 12:619.
  • Lateur-Rowett, H. J. M., Breukink, H. J. 1983. The failure of the oesophageal groove reflex, when fluids are given with an oesophageal feeder to newborn calves. The Veterinary Quarterly, 5:68.
  • Nocek, J. E. D. R. Braund, and R. G. Warner. 1984. Influence of neonatal colostrum administration, immunoglobulin, and continued feeding of colostrum on calf gain, health, and serum protein. J. Dairy Sci. 67:319.
  • Odde, K. G. 1988. Survival of the neonatal calf. Vet Clin. North Amer. (Large Anim. Prac.) 4(3):501.
  • Oyeniyi, O. O. and A. G. Hunter. 1978. Colostral constituents including immunoglobulins in the first three milkings postpartum. J. Dairy Sci. 61:44.
  • Penhale, W. J. and G. Christie. 1969. Quantitative studies on bovine immunoglobulins. Res. Vet. Sci. 10:493.
  • Pritchett, L., C. C. Gay, T. E. Besser, and D. D. Hancock. 1991. Management and production factors influencing immunoglobulin G1 concentration in colostrum of Holstein cows. J. Dairy Sci. 74:2336.
  • Robison, J. D., S. K. DeNise, and G. H. Stott. 1988. Effects of passive immunity on growth and survival in the dairy heifer. J. Dairy Sci. 71:1283.
  • Stott, G. H., D. B. Marx, B. E. Menefee,and G. T. Nightengale. 1979. Colostral immunoglobulin transfer in calves. I. period of absorption. J. Dairy Sci. 62:1632.
  • Zaremba, V. W., E. Grunert, W. Heuwieser, and H. Schiffer-Menrens. 1984. Untersuchungen uber die immunoglobulinabsorption bei kalbern nach verabreichung von kolostrum per schlundsonde im vergleich zur freiwilligen aufnahme. Dtsch. tierarztl. Wschr. 92:18.

Originally written by John Comerford