By Robert Tremblay
Failure to provide calves with the prescribed amount of colostrum, or failure of passive transfer (FPT) has been an ongoing issue in dairy production. Various studies have shown that this is a common problem that contributes to an increased risk that dairy calves will suffer more and have more severe calf diseases.
I suspect that dairy farmers are a little tired of hearing veterinarians talk about colostrum but there isnt much evidence that FPT has improved. It isnt clear that the nature of colostrum feeding will be prescribed in the animal health component of ProAction but colostrum feeding is one of the requirements prescribed in the Dairy Code of Practice. The code states that it is required that calves receive at least four litres of good quality colostrum over the first 12 hours of birth with the first colostrum meal given within six hours of birth.
There are numerous options for obtaining and storing colostrum. You can buy good quality natural dried bovine colostrum from several manufacturers. It can be difficult figuring out how much of it to give, though, because most products dont necessarily recommend feeding the four litres prescribed in the Code of Practice.
The majority of farmers feed the mother cows colostrum. They just dont necessarily feed the recommended amount or they may feed colostrum that isnt the best quality. Colostrum quality is determined by the amount of antibody in the colostrum. Colostrum from high-producing dairy cows often isnt very good quality, meaning that it often doesnt contain a good enough concentration of antibody. That is why the required volume and the amount that calves should get has crept up to the current recommendation of four litres.
Not feeding enough of the mother cows colostrum and not feeding it soon enough after the calf is born are the two most common reasons for FPT. But if the colostrum is contaminated with manure or is allowed to sit around after it has been harvested, bacteria will multiply in it. Feeding calves that contaminated colostrum often leads to other problems. That is why most vets recommend prepping the cow as if you were going to milk her before you harvest colostrum. Refrigerate it if youre not going to feed it right away.
Natural colostrum can be stored frozen too. Research shows that the antibody in colostrum is well preserved by freezing. The first studies looked at freezing for only a few days or weeks. A recent research trial looked at freezing colostrum and keeping it frozen for up to a year. The amount of antibody in the colostrum did decline after six and 12 months in the freezer but there was still more than 90 per cent of the original antibody left even after 12 months. There wasnt much difference between six and 12 months.
We have the tools and the knowledge we need to feed colostrum. The tough part, as always, looks to be in getting it done.
Dr. Robert Tremblay is a veterinarian for Boehringer-Ingelheim and lives near Guelph.