Farm Ireland

Saturday 21 April 2018

Colostrum key to ensuring calves survives first month

It is vital that newborn calves receive three litres of colostrum within two hours of their birth to help them thrive
It is vital that newborn calves receive three litres of colostrum within two hours of their birth to help them thrive

Charles Chavasse

Feeding enough good quality colostrum (biestings) to a newborn calf is the single most important thing that a farmer can do to help ensure that a calf survives and thrives during its first month on the farm.

Calves are born without protective antibodies, which means they do not have an ability to fight off diseases like scour, navel ill and pneumonia.

To acquire these antibodies they must be fed colostrum, which is the milk the cow produces in her first milking after calving.

The calf's gut can only absorb these protective antibodies during its first 24 hours of life but the first six hours are ideal.

Failure to transfer this ability to fight infection from the cow to the calf condemns the calf to poor thrive and disease at best, or death at worst.


Calves should receive three litres of the cow's first milk within two hours of birth.

Calves frequently wag their tails when suckling but since no-one knows how many wags of the tail is the equivalent to 3l of colostrum, the safest thing to do is milk 3l of colostrum into a clean bucket and either feed it with a nipple or via an oesophageal tube (also known as a stomach tube).

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Farms should establish a bank of colostrum to use when either a cow calves with poor quality or no colostrum.

This bank should ideally come from healthy cows only and it should contain only the first milking.

It is strongly advised not to bring in colostrum from another farm, as this could introduce diseases like Johne's.

The colostrum should either be refrigerated for a day or can be frozen for up to a year.

When defrosting, the container holding the colostrum should be placed in a hand-hot bucket of warm water.

It is important not to use boiling water as this will reduce the quality of the colostrum.

If calves can continue to receive some colostrum for the first few weeks of life this improves their ability to fight off scours, as the antibodies in the colostrum kill off infections in the gut before they can be absorbed.

So the one, two, three of newborn calf health is that: colostrum is the milk from the first milking; the calf should receive it with within two hours of birth; and it should receive three litres.

Irish Independent