Guidelines for feeding new-born calf colostrums

Producer Question from 2013

Q.  What are some guidelines that I can use to determine if I need to feed a new-born calf colostrums? (Mar 1, 2013)

A.  In cattle, the survival of the calf is dependent on it receiving high-quality colostrum within the first 24 hours of life, because the structure of the placenta prevents the fetus from receiving immunoglobulins (IgG) in utero. Newborn calves can't fight a bacterial or viral challenge until they have acquired passive immunity through the IgG received through colostrum.

The IgG are a specialized form of antibodies, gamma globulin proteins that fight bacterial and viral infections by binding to pathogens and neutralizing them.

With cattle, the newborn calf's small intestine can only absorb IgG during the first 24 hours of life. Furthermore, within the first 24 hours of life, the timing of the calf receiving colostrum is critical as the ability to absorb IgG from the small intestine starts to decline after the first 6 hours, and is essentially stopped after 24 hours. For optimum immunity, the calf needs to receive colostrums well within the first 6 hours after being born.

Research has found that an adequately nourished beef cow should be able to provide an adequate supply of IgG in about 3 liters of colostrum, which means that a calf should consume one pint of colostrum for every 20 pounds of calf weight.

If the answer is Yes to any of the following questions, feed colostrum.

  1. Is the calf too weak to suckle its dam after being born?
  2. Has the cow abandoned the calf or refused to let the calf suckle soon after being born?
  3. Has the calf been exposed to weather conditions that have interfered with the calf's opportunity to suckle the dam after being born? An example is that the calf experienced hypothermia and had to be removed from the dam and put in a calf warmer for some time right after birth.
  4. Did the calf experience a difficult birth?

Rick Rasby
UNL Beef Extension Specialist
University of Nebraska