by Sally Colby

Most dairy farms have colostrum feeding protocol, but colostrum handling procedures vary widely. The beneficial qualities of the best colostrum can be negated by poor collection, handling, storage and feeding practices.

Dr. Phillip Jardon, technical consultant for Elanco Animal Health, conducts colostrum management audits on dairy farms. “Antibodies are important for the newborn calf,” he said. “It’s important for every species, but particularly for calves. Calves are born from a dam that has a placenta that doesn’t allow antibodies to cross over, so the calf is totally dependent on colostrum for initial antibodies.”

The antibodies in colostrum are particularly important in warding off scours, which is the primary cause of illness and death in calves during the first few weeks of life. “Antibodies are only absorbed early in the calf’s life,” said Jardon. “In the first few hours antibodies are absorbed well, but over the first day, that decreases rapidly. By 24 hours after birth, the calf cannot absorb antibodies.”

This means the dairy farmer has a limited window of time to ensure calves receive the best possible colostrum. However, colostrum can vary in antibody concentration. Some cows have more than others depending on gestation length, weather, time of year and cow age.

Bacteria are bad for colostrum – they’re bad for absorption and bad for the calf, especially in the first day of life. Jardon references work by Dr. Sandra Godden, who designated the five Qs involving colostrum management: quality, quantity, quickness, sQueaky clean and quantify.

Quality means colostrum with high antibody levels, ideally greater than 50 grams per liter. Quantity is the amount the calf receives. Quickness means the feeding must occur as quickly after birth as possible because the ability of the gut to absorb antibodies shuts down rapidly. Colostrum must be sQueaky clean because bacteria affect how well antibodies are absorbed. Quantifying refers to colostrum testing to determine colostrum quality.

Unfortunately, Jardon has seen some dairies overlook the cleanliness factor, adding that bacteria and viruses can negatively influence colostrum quality. “They decrease the absorption of IgG,” he said. “The bacteria themselves actually interfere with the absorption of antibodies.” Bacteria can also cause disease, and on the first day of the calf’s life, the gut is open and willing to absorb just about anything, including toxins.

Jardon said bacteria such as Salmonella Dublin can get into a calf the day they’re born from the maternity pen and hide in the lymph nodes for several months. “We tend to see outbreaks of that disease right about weaning,” he said. “Calves often get the infection at birth and it shows up later.” In contrast, some diseases, such as Johne’s disease and bovine leukemia virus, infect the animal at birth but clinical signs may not show up for years.

Bacteria come from several places, including the milk itself, the cow’s skin or manure present on the cow or in the birthing environment. Milkers’ hands and milking equipment can also harbor bacteria.

Colostrum often becomes contaminated or spoiled due to poor handling techniques. Bacteria flourish in colostrum that’s cooled down too slowly or stored at the wrong temperature. In addition to having high moisture content, the fat and protein in colostrum provide the perfect food for bacteria.

The key to successfully collecting and storing high-quality colostrum is keeping bacteria out. Jardon said the first step in handling colostrum is when it’s straight out of the cow. “Think about milk coming out of the cow, into a pipeline and through a plate cooler,” said Jardon. “It’s usually only warm for a minute or two while it goes through that process. It goes from being cow temperature to the 30s. That keeps bacteria from growing.”

Consider heat treating colostrum to maintain quality. While true pasteurization is heating to 145º and holding for 30 minutes, heat treating involves bringing colostrum to 140º and holding at that temperature for one hour. Jardon said some farmers add potassium sorbate to colostrum, which doesn’t kill bacteria but inhibits growth.

“Heat treating at 140º for one hour does not destroy antibodies,” said Jardon. “It destroys the bacteria that cause the antibodies to not be absorbed well.” However, if colostrum can be harvested and cooled quickly to prevent bacteria from entering, heat treating isn’t always necessary.

Some colostrum quality issues originate in milking equipment. Gaskets, hoses and other non-metal materials are perfect for harboring bacteria. “It’s those places protected from flushing (during cleaning),” said Jardon. “Milk isn’t washed out, then the equipment sits for 12 hours between milk harvest and grows bacteria. You’re milking into a container that has a lot of bacteria.” Jardon added that brushes that can reach all places in milking equipment are available through dairy suppliers and should be used to thoroughly clean collection equipment.

Differences in milking technique and cleaning among different areas on the farm can be problematic. “One of my pet peeves on parlor management is when the old parlor is used for milking the hospital pen and fresh cows,” said Jardon. “It doesn’t get the same care as the main parlor.” He suggested using a luminometer, a tool that vets and consultants often have, to determine cleanliness of surfaces.

Bacteria issues can also arise when a refrigerator is used to cool colostrum. The inside temperature is too warm or fluctuates, especially after a big harvest of colostrum. Refrigerators are opened and closed frequently and don’t cool colostrum quickly enough. Colostrum bottles stored next to vaccines can be the source of problems, and such storage is not ideal for vaccines. Jardon said one of the best ways to cool colostrum is to pump it through a small plate cooler, and in about one minute, the colostrum goes from being cow temperature to 36º.

Always thaw colostrum slowly in hot water, never in a microwave. A thawing temperature greater than 140º inactivates the immunoglobulins. Prior to feeding, measure the temperature with a thermometer. A temperature that’s too high or low will affect passage of antibodies – a temperature close to 102º at feeding is ideal.

For pooled colostrum, always test colostrum from each cow contributing prior to the pool. Without initial testing, the opportunity to optimize the colostrum quality is lost.

If scours is an ongoing issue in young calves, work with your herd veterinarian to determine whether it’s appropriate to administer a scours vaccine to cows prior to calving.