Colostrum and baby calves

Cow-Calf Commentary

KIMBALL, Neb. – Calving time can be an adventure.

Fortunately, for the most part, cows and their newborn calves do quite well on their own, thank you very much. But occasionally a helping hand is required.

When a new calf falls behind the energy curve it can be very hard for it to catch up. If it gets chilled, and hasn’t been able to nurse properly, it can become hypothermic and die very quickly. This is when the rancher can make a positive contribution by introducing warm colostrum directly into the calf’s tummy.

Colostrum (from the Latin for first milk) is the first milk produced by a lactating female immediately after giving birth. All mammals, including humans, produce this first milk which is very energy dense and loaded with antibodies.

As I’ve written before, baby calves (and really all mammals) are born with a razor thin energy margin. They’ve generally got just enough energy to start up all the systems mama was taking care of in the womb and to get up and nurse. With a little bit of a cushion. Usually. The energy they are born with includes the sugar in their blood and stored fat. Those energy stores don’t last for long, so it’s really important that the newborn nurse as soon as possible and that the milk be colostrum, which is loaded with more fats and sugars than “regular” milk.

Colostrum is also loaded with antibodies. The calf is born with an intact immune system – in other words – an immune system that’s ready to begin functioning. But it doesn’t have any antibodies yet, because the placenta filters the cow’s own antibodies out of the blood supplied to the calf in the womb. It makes sense if you think about it, because antibodies are very similar to pathogens. The cow might be sick, but the placenta shields the calf from anything that might be a pathogen, including her own antibodies. Therefore, the calf is born without being sick, but also without the vital antibodies which will fight disease.

When the calf consumes its first milk, the antibodies in that milk are absorbed by the gut and become part of the calf’s immune system, where they immediately begin protecting it from disease.

As you can see, colostrum is very important to the newborn calf.

Sometimes the calf doesn’t nurse though. Fortunately, we live in the 21st Century and have access to processed, freeze-dried colostrum which has nearly all the energy and most of the antibodies of mama’s first milk. Just mix with warm water and feed it to the calf via a bottle or stomach tube. It’s not exactly as good as mama’s, but it’s close enough to bridge the gap.

Mama’s colostrum is the best, because it’s fresh and hasn’t been processed or freeze-dried, which does eliminate some of the antibodies and a little bit of the energy. It can be frozen at the ranch, though, and simple freezing does little or nothing to degrade its effectiveness. Therefore, whenever we have the opportunity to do so we harvest and freeze colostrum. Once thawed out it’ll be fully effective for any calf that needs it. Frozen colostrum is an important commodity.


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