Colostrum Management is Udderly Important for Newborn Calves

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Black cows with black calves in field.

Cows and calves.

CHARITON, Iowa – Colostrum, or first milk, is extremely important for newborn calves. Ingestion of colostrum imparts passive immunity which is necessary to protect calves from infectious disease. This is particularly important in cattle because bovine antibodies are not readily transferred across the placenta, which means that calves are born almost completely unprotected from environmental pathogens and infectious diseases. And Chris Clark, Iowa State University extension beef specialist, said these antibodies are just one in a long list of beneficial components colostrum provides.

“We often focus on IgG and passive immunity, which is obviously important, but colostrum is loaded with other important molecules,” he said. “Even beyond the nutritional components, there are enzymes, growth factors, cells, hormones, and much more that we sometimes take for granted. These things are really important to help newborn calves get off to a good start.”

Calves must ingest colostrum within the first few hours of life to acquire these antibodies and the associated protection. Newborn beef calves should ingest approximately 2 quarts of high quality colostrum within the first 4 to 6 hours of life and an additional 1-2 quarts by approximately 12 hours of age.

“The ability to absorb antibodies steadily declines over the first few hours of life,” Clark said. “The old rule of thumb is that calves must ingest colostrum within the first 24 hours of life but actually, the percent of antibodies absorbed decreases dramatically by 12 hours of age and is virtually zero by 24 hours of age.”

Many calves will be born without incident and will ingest adequate colostrum without any human intervention. However, producers know that calving season can be full of challenges and surprises: dystocia, weak calves, inclement weather, poor mothers, lack of colostrum production, and a host of other issues that can interfere with consumption and absorption of colostrum. So, what can you do to provide colostrum when these challenges occur?

Mother’s milk is almost always best. If possible, help the calf nurse or milk out the dam to tube/bottle feed the newborn. Heifers may not offer the quantity or quality necessary, and calves born to heifers may require colostrum supplementation or several small feedings offered as more colostrum is let down and made available by the young dam.

In cases of insufficient colostrum production by the dam or when it is not possible to milk the dam, the next best option may be to use fresh or frozen colostrum from another cow. Mature, healthy, well-vaccinated cows within the same herd are the best choices for colostrum donors. When compared to heifers, mature cows produce colostrum that is more abundant and more concentrated. Healthy well-vaccinated cows will be less likely to transmit disease and more likely to offer protective antibodies through colostrum. Finally, to minimize biosecurity risk, it is always advisable to use colostrum from cows within your herd, Clark said.

“The challenge is that calves of heifers are often the ones that need supplementation and heifers often calve ahead of the mature cow herd. It can be difficult just in terms of timing and logistics to find a good colostrum donor and make everything work,” he said.

Colostrum can be frozen and stored for use at a later time. The usual recommendation is to freeze in either one- or two-quart zip-top freezer bags or freezer-safe containers. Take care to thaw appropriately as excessive heat, uneven heating, freeze/thaw cycles, etc. can damage antibodies in colostrum. The best method for thawing is to place the frozen bag or container in a warm water bath (110 degrees F) and stir every five minutes, continuing until the colostrum reaches 104 degrees F. This thawing process takes approximately 40 minutes.

Beef producers are sometimes interested in obtaining frozen colostrum from dairy operations that regularly freeze and store colostrum. If considering this option, it is important to remember two potential issues. First, colostrum of dairy cows is much less concentrated than that of beef cows. So, using dairy-derived colostrum will require a greater volume to impart the same immunity. And second, several infectious diseases are more prevalent in dairies than in beef operations, meaning biosecurity must be a concern. At a minimum, you should be confident that all stored/frozen colostrum is free of blood, mastitis organisms, Johne’s disease and fecal contamination.

“Thinking about biosecurity, I always discourage producers from getting colostrum from other herds. The risk is just too great that a new pathogen or disease could be introduced,” Clark said.

Numerous commercial products are available to replace or supplement maternal colostrum. Most colostrum products are manufactured from bovine colostrum or bovine serum and are labeled as either colostrum supplements or colostrum replacers.

Colostrum supplements generally have less than 100 g of IgG per dose, often approximately 50-60 g per dose, and are meant to be used as a supplement to maternal colostrum. Given alone, colostrum supplements lack the IgG concentration necessary to prevent failure of passive transfer and they lack the necessary nutritional components to ensure calf survival and health. Colostrum replacers generally have greater than 100 g of IgG per dose, sometimes up to 150 g per dose, and are meant to be used as a replacement when maternal colostrum is completely unavailable.

Colostrum replacements also are formulated to supply the nutrients necessary for a newborn calf. Replacers normally have greater fat content and greater overall energy content than supplements and often contain more vitamins, minerals and protein as well. Colostrum replacers are more expensive because they are more concentrated with antibodies and nutrients but in many cases may be worth the investment, Clark said.

“Sometimes you get what you pay for and when it comes to commercial colostrum products, I would spend the extra money and buy a high quality colostrum replacer,” he said. “If that greater concentration of antibodies and nutrients prevents failure of passive transfer and nourishes the newborn, it will be well worth the investment.”

It is strongly recommended that you use a product licensed by the USDA and that you carefully read and follow label directions to ensure proper use.



The Iowa Beef Center at Iowa State University was established in 1996 with the goal of supporting the growth and vitality of the state’s beef cattle industry. It comprises faculty and staff from Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and College of Veterinary Medicine, and works to develop and deliver the latest research-based information regarding the beef cattle industry. For more information about IBC, visit

Chris Clark, DVM, Iowa State University Extension beef specialist, 712-250-0070,

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