Raising Calf-Fed Holsteins: Colostrum Management

Newborn calves need colostrum as soon as possible to achieve transfer of passive immunity. Learn about proper colostrum management in calf-fed Holsteins raised for beef.
Raising Calf-Fed Holsteins: Colostrum Management - Videos


Producers interested in raising calf-fed Holsteins face several challenges when raising newborn calves. A crucial first step to overcome those challenges is colostrum feeding to ensure transfer of passive immunity. This video outlines the importance of feeding colostrum to newborn calves and will answer the main questions that producers may have in terms of the science, timeline, quality, and cleanliness of colostrum.

Who is this for?

Farmers (primarily dairy farmers) who wish to raise their Holstein calves for beef production as an alternative source of revenue.


Beef cattle nutrition Beef cattle metabolism Beef cattle management Feedlot nutrition and management

More by Tara L. Felix 

View Transcript




- Are you interested in raising Holstein calves for the beef market but don't know where to start?

Do you have questions about what to do in the first hours of a newborn calf's life in order to ensure a healthy start?

I'm Dr. Tara Felix, the Penn State Extension Beef Specialist.

Today, we're going to talk about feeding colostrum to calves to raise healthy Holsteins for beef.

Raising Holsteins for beef production begins with developing a healthy calf.

And to ensure this proper development we begin with colostrum.

Most dairy producers can discuss the benefits of providing colostrum to their heifer calves that they're retaining in an operation.

However, ensuring adequate colostrum to bull calves is just as important to set them up for a lifelong success in the production chain.

Let's discuss why.

Because calves are born with no immunity against disease, they must be fed colostrum to provide transfer of passive immunity, meaning immunity that they get from their mom.

And this timing is crucial.

Well, what exactly is colostrum?

Colostrum is simply another name for the first milk secreted by the dam, or female, after she gives birth.

It is rich in protein and antibodies and it provides essential nutrients and the passive transfer of immunity to the newborn calf from the dam.

Feeding colostrum can increase a calf's metabolism and stimulate its digestive activity.

And colostrum is vital for the health of the newborn calf.

But there are four factors that influence the effectiveness of colostrum feeding.

The first is timing, that is how soon colostrum is consumed by the calf after birth.

Next, the quality of colostrum is important.

Quantity of colostrum that's fed to that calf.

And finally, the cleanliness of colostrum.

It's very important to offer colostrum to calves within the first hour after birth which can be a challenge.

This graph illustrates the reason for this urgency.

A calf's gastrointestinal tract is unique in that its ability to absorb large molecules only remains functioning for the first 24 hours after birth.

The temporary absorption of large molecules, called immunoglobulins, is crucial for adequate transfer of passive immunity from the dam to the calf.

All efforts should be made to offer colostrum within the first few hours of the calf's life.

In addition to timing, the quality of colostrum being fed plays a major role in the calf's ultimate health.

All colostrum should be tested to determine its quality.

And the quality of colostrum is determined by the immunoglobulin concentration measured on a scale of milligrams per milliliter.

A colostrometer can be used to measure colostrum quality and has a color-coded scale that clearly shows the breakdown between good, fair, and poor quality colostrum.

The green range, which indicates high-quality colostrum, represents a colostrum that contains 50 milligrams or more of immunoglobulins per milliliter of colostrum.

A refractometer operates on a Brix scale.

Brix scales were originally developed by food manufacturers to measure the sugar concentration in certain solutions.

However, researchers found that Brix scale correlates to immunoglobulin concentration as well.

A Brix reading greater than or equal to 22% correlates to 50 milligrams of immunoglobulins per milliliter or better and thus is high-quality colostrum.

Farms should make it a habit to test all colostrum and only store and feed the highest-quality colostrum.

Feeding a poor-quality colostrum decreases the calves' chances of acquiring adequate passive immunity from the colostrum and thus remaining healthy, even if the feeding began immediately after birth.

In addition to quality, the quantity of colostrum fed to calves can affect its benefits as well.

Following birth, a calf should be fed approximately 12% of its birth weight.

Typically with the average Holstein calf weighing between 80 to 100 pounds this is about four quarts.

Thus Holstein calves should get four quarts as soon as possible after birth and an additional four quarts eight to 12 hours later.

Regardless of the number of feedings required to achieve the intake, a full four quarts should be consumed within eight hours after birth.

Finally, the cleanliness of the colostrum is also an important factor to consider.

Colostrum cannot be too clean.

Colostrum should be stored, like any milk product, in a clean, refrigerated place.

Bacteria can be introduced by collecting colostrum coming from an infected gland or fecal contamination, or bacteria can grow in contaminated or dirty storage and feeding equipment.

So when storing colostrum, it's important to remember that improper storage or cooling can lead to a doubling of bacterial counts every 20 minutes.

Ultimately, the calf's immunity must overcome these introduced bacteria from the dirty colostrum, thus stressing the newborn calf's immature immune system.

For the first 20 days of life, it is critical that calves have adequate transfer of passive immunity from clean, quality colostrum in order to remain healthy until they can acquire immunity on their own.

After about three weeks of age, acquired immunity starts taking off.

Notice in this graph how acquired immunity sharply decreases the chance for scours or death loss after 20 days, and completely replaces the immunity passed from the dam by about 26 days of age.

You have seen the importance of colostrum-feeding the calves, but remember that many growers will get calves after the colostrum window.

You'll have to develop excellent health protocols if you're picking calves up from an auction with no known colostrum history.

One of the best ways to be sure that you get calves that have had a healthy start is by developing close relationships with farms that supply calves and maybe even offering to pay a little bit more for those calves that have been properly managed at birth.

Proper colostrum management is crucial for a newborn calf to start a healthy life and to begin transitioning to milk and grain even when we're just raising bull calves for beef production.

With close attention to timing, quality, quantity, and cleanliness of the colostrum offered in the first days of life you can ensure optimal growth and success of your calf fed Holstein production.


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