Colostrum Alternatives for Beef Calves

Published on Sun, 01/08/2023 - 10:27am

Colostrum Alternatives for Beef Calves.

 By Heather Smith Thomas.

 Colostrum is crucial for a newborn calf, to provide instant energy and temporary immunity to help him fight off many diseases he will soon encounter.   Calves with failure of passive transfer (calves that don’t receive or absorb adequate levels of antibodies from colostrum) are at greater risk for illness; they have up to six times more risk of death in the first three months of life.

Every calf should nurse its dam in a timely manner (preferably within the first two to four hours).  Occasionally however, a calf is unable to nurse because the dam dies, or has large teats or some other problem, or a first-calf heifer rejects her calf and won’t let it suckle.  If calving occurs during inclement weather, a newborn may become too chilled to nurse.  In any of these instances the producer must help the calf nurse its mother, or provide colostrum or a colostrum substitute via a bottle or esophageal feeder or tube.

Dr. Robert Callan, professor emeritus, Colorado State University, says colostrum from the calf’s own mother, is best.  Fresh or frozen colostrum from another cow, such as what you obtain by milking her after her own calf has nursed, is next best.  A mature cow will have higher quality colostrum (more antibodies) than a first-calf heifer.

“Colostrum can be frozen for use in emergencies, and it keeps very well in one-quart or one-gallon freezer bags without losing quality for at least six months or longer,” he says.  You could collect some at the start of calving season and it would be fine for use that season, or even the next year if need be.

“Even if it’s a year old, it will still be better than anything you can buy.  Just be careful when thawing frozen colostrum so you don’t destroy the antibody proteins with hot temperatures.  It’s best to place the package in a pan of warm water to thaw.  Add additional warm water periodically until it is thawed, and warm enough for the calf,” he explains.  Even though thawing in a microwave is quicker, this may destroy antibodies.

Some people get fresh colostrum from a local dairy.  “The problem with dairy colostrum is that it can contain pathogens that could be transmitted to the calf.  These include bovine leukemia virus (BLV), Johne’s disease, salmonella, mycoplasma bovis and other mastitis pathogens.  Bringing home colostrum from a dairy is just as risky as bringing in a new animal from a dairy.  I would not take this risk unless the colostrum was from a family milk cow—that’s had no contact with other dairy cattle,” says Callan.

Commercial Colostrum Supplements And Replacers
Commercial products vary in amount of immunoglobulin (antibodies) they contain.  Understanding this difference is crucial in choosing which product to use.

“A beef calf should receive at least 100 grams of immunoglobulin within the first six to 12 hours of life, but preferably within the first two hours.  Recent research shows that 130 to 200 grams of immunoglobulin is optimum.  When you compare colostrum supplements and replacements on the market, you’ll notice that they contain varying amounts of immunoglobulin,” Callan says.

In general, products with less than 100 grams immunoglobulin per dose are marketed as supplements, and products with 100 grams or greater are marketed as colostrum replacers.  Usually the products with a greater amount of IgG cost more, but their value to the calf is worth the extra cost.  

The dried/powdered product is mixed with 1.5 to two quarts of warm water.  “One downside is that when you give that much to a beef calf he will be full, which may decrease his desire to nurse and bond with the dam; he may not want to nurse again for about 12 hours,” says Callan.

A variety of studies have looked at administering colostrum supplements or replacers to calves that also nurse the dam.  “In general, if the dam has satisfactory colostrum and the calf obtains an adequate amount, there is little benefit to giving the supplement,” he says.

“The next question is how do you know if the dam’s colostrum is good quality?  There are ways to determine this by measuring the density or specific gravity of the fluid.  The more immunoglobulins in the colostrum, the higher the specific gravity will be,” he explains.  Thick, dense colostrum is generally of better quality than thin, watery colostrum, but you can’t always tell by looking at it.  You can check with a colostrometer or a Brix refractometer.  The latter is more expensive but a little more accurate and only requires a drop of colostrum to measure the quality.  A reading of 22% or higher indicates adequate immunoglobulin concentration in the colostrum,” he explains.

“A colostrometer is cheaper than a bag of good quality colostrum replacer and will pay for itself in its first use,” says Callan.  If you have a thin old cow or some first calf heifers (that typically don’t have as high-quality colostrum as a mature cow), you could check to see if their colostrum quality is adequate for their calves.

“This testing is not foolproof, but gives a reasonable estimate of quality.  If it measures low, you’d want to give that calf another source of colostrum.”

There’s some debate regarding replacement products made from blood plasma versus the ones made from dried colostrum.  “I think they both work, as long as they have an adequate amount of IgG.  There are some differences in the type of immunoglobulin, but these are minor,” says Callan.

“If you use a commercial colostrum product as a replacement for real colostrum, have a veterinarian test that calf’s blood two to four days later to see if he did receive adequate antibody levels.  This can be a simple test that measures total protein concentration in the blood, which correlates well with immunoglobulin transfer,” he explains.

Dr. Deborah Haines, founder of the Saskatoon Colostrum Company that has manufactured colostrum supplements and replacers for 30 years, was also a professor and immunologist at University of Saskatchewan’s Western College of Veterinary Medicine.  She says that in a beef herd, only rarely would a beef calf need a total replacer, because most of those calves are able to obtain colostrum from the dam.
How Antibodies In Colstrum Protect The Calf
In cattle, and most domestic animals, there is no transfer of antibodies across the placenta; the fetus does not obtain any circulating antibodies from the dam’s blood.  A human baby has the advantage of antibody transfer across the placenta, but a calf can only obtain maternal antibodies from colostrum.  “Survival is dependent on receiving those antibodies from colostrum, before gut closure,” says Haines.

For a short time after birth, the calf has an “open” gut; the large molecules of antibodies can slip through into the bloodstream and lymph systems.   “In theory the gut is open for up to 24 hours, but it actually starts closing within a few hours,” she says.  Most antibody absorption occurs in the first two or three hours; after that there is diminishing ability for the gut to absorb them.

“The gut does remain open for some absorption during subsequent feedings.  In nature the calf suckles small amounts over a longer time period, whereas when we are supplementing (or bottle-feeding) a calf we usually feed a larger amount in just one or two feedings.  We don’t give up and not feed colostrum just because we might be late getting it into the calf,” says Haines.  It will still do some good, and there are also certain types of antibodies that are meant to stay within the gut and attack some of the pathogens that might cause scours.

You get the best passive transfer within the first hours of life. However,  if you know the newborn calf won’t be able to suckle mom, give a large feeding of colostrum as soon as possible.  “We do find, however, that some calves benefit from a second feeding.  We’ve done studies in both beef and dairy calves, showing that calves, especially those that had a difficult birth or acidotic, with lower blood pH or for some other reason are unable to absorb antibodies as readily.  These calves greatly benefit from a second feeding or colostrum.  You are better off to feed a bit less (not the whole amount) in the first feeding, and provide a subsequent feeding within just a few hours,” says Haines.

Generally you want to provide as much colostrum as possible as quickly as possible, because gut closure is hastened as soon as the calf has a meal.  This is because it’s a race between the pathogens and antibodies and Mother Nature wants the antibodies to get there first.  “But for reasons we don’t understand, if a calf has had a stressful birth and is acidotic and not breathing very well, he is not absorbing antibodies very well in those first hours.  It is critical to get these calves breathing, and then deal with providing colostrum,” she says.

How much a calf needs will also depend on how much challenge he’ll have with pathogens in his environment.  “It’s a numbers game--how much challenge versus how many antibodies are present to protect the calf from that challenge.  The target is to have calves get at least 200 grams of IgG and achieve blood levels of over 20 grams.  Some studies in beef calves showed the cut–point for the calves that did best was around 24 grams of IgG in their blood serum,” she explains.

The goal in beef animals is to get the calf to suckle the mother; you don’t want an orphan calf to raise.  If we have to provide colostrum product we don’t want to give a tremendous volume that will make them too full and not want to nurse until later.  If there’s a chance they will be able to get up and seek the udder and nurse mom, we just need to get them started, with a smaller feeding, so they are still a bit hungry—but have the energy and incentive to try to nurse mom.

“We generally recommend giving one or two liters at most, enough to get them going and encourage them to go to mom for more.  But if they are unable to suckle mom within a few hours, we have to feed them again.”  If it’s a situation in which you know the calf won’t be able to suckle mom for a while (such as a swollen tongue after a long, hard birth), or an orphan, you need to give a full feeding of colostrum replacement.
Timing is crucial for first ingestion of colostrum, but the colostrum also has some benefits after day one.  With a beef calf, unless you are hand-raising an orphan, the calf continues to get low levels of antibodies in the milk.  The amount of antibodies from the colostrum of the dam diminishes as it is diluted by regular milk, but there will be some residual antibodies for a few more nursing periods.  
Antibody Sources For Commercial Products
There are differences in products regarding their source of antibodies.  Most products are created using actual colostrum, but some are created using antibodies from blood or milk whey.

“Blood-based products and cheese-whey based products are not allowed in Canada.  In the U.S. some products use antibodies harvested from slaughterhouse blood or from cheese whey.  Those are different from the antibodies found in colostrum.  In Canada it is not legal to sell those products,” says Haines.

“One of the main reasons is lack of traceability (to know where the blood or whey came from).  In the U.S. there are licensed and unlicensed products.  Licensed products have traceability; every animal that has contributed antibodies to the product must be traceable.  This harks back to BSE concerns.  In Canada, we cannot have any product that can’t be traced back to every cow that contributed antibodies.  This is also true in the U.S. for all licensed products, but there are a few that are not licensed—which means USDA is not regulating them.  Legally they are not allowed to claim that they can be used as a colostrum supplement or replacement.  There are however, some manufacturers who do it anyway.  None of the products made from slaughterhouse blood or cheese whey are licensed, and should not claim that they can be used as colostrum replacers or supplements,” she says.

When buying any colostrum product, read the label and make sure it is a licensed product, either through USDA or CFIA (Canadian Food Inspection Agency).  “All Canadian supplements and replacers are licensed and have to be made from actual colostrum.  This means a pricier product, because the processing of colostrum is a lot more stringent and complicated than isolating antibodies from slaughterhouse blood or cheese whey,” Haines explains.

Colostrum Replacers Versus Supplements
There are two categories of commercial products; the difference is the amount of IgG they contain and the studies that have been done to show whether they can be used to totally replace maternal colostrum or only to supplement.  The products with lower amounts are considered supplements, and those with higher levels of IgG are considered colostrum replacements.

“However, other components in colostrum are also important—but rarely listed on the label.  Antibody is considered the key ingredient.  Yet equally important are some of the other factors, such as fat.”  This is what gives the calf energy, the fuel to keep warm and move around vigorously to keep up with mom and continue to nurse regularly.

“The minute they hit the ground, their own metabolic processes have to kick in and maintain body temperature.  Otherwise they plunge into hypothermia.  A newborn calf has very little body fat for energy reserves, and only a few hours worth of fuel in fat.  It is important when choosing a colostrum product to know that it contains fat.  However, fat is not a listed ingredient on most products.  Some products may look good because of a high IgG level, but have no fat.  Products made from blood serum do not have any fat.  Some have fat added, such as tallow or vegetable fat, but it’s not nearly as good.  The fat in colostrum is unique and different from any other fat source,” she says.

“Some products are made from colostrum that have been skimmed to remove the fat, and this will artificially elevate the antibody level,” she explains.  So make sure you are feeding whole colostrum products.
“Licensed products are heat-treated to eliminate pathogens.  The USDA, CFIA and manufacturers monitor to make sure there are no pathogens present, and that the heat treatment hasn’t damaged the IgG.  In unregulated products, while it is likely that most manufacturers have quality controls, this is not monitored by the regulatory agencies.”

Colostrum Management In Beef Calves    
Collect and freeze one quart bags of high quality colostrum from mature beef cows early in the calving season for use in emergencies.

Use a colostrometer or Brix refractometer to check quality of the dam’s colostrum or any that that you plan to store.

Ensure that calves vigorously nurse the dam within one to two hours of birth.  If they do not nurse well, feed or tube them with 1 quart high quality colostrum from the dam, or frozen colostrum.

Be proactive with high-risk calves and bottle or tube feed one quart colostrum from the dam or frozen colostrum.  High-risk calves would include any difficult dystocia, twins, calves born by cesarean section, calves where the dam is sick or compromised, or in instances where calving occurred in severely inclement weather.

If needed, use a commercial high quality colostrum replacer that contains at least 130g of colostrum per dose and feed this within two hours of birth.