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The importance of colostrum to newborn livestock

The annual miracle of birth is about to begin on many area livestock operations.

Regardless of how many births a farmer-rancher has witnessed, most will admit to a renewed appreciation for the miracle of birth upon finding that first healthy newborn of the season.

Although we humans are supposedly the superior species, I doubt we could survive what most newborn calves, lambs or goat kids endure; being unceremoniously dropped onto a manure pack, wringing wet, in sub-freezing temperatures, and yet be able to scamper around kicking up their heels within mere hours of taking their first breath! Indeed, this really does seem miraculous.

Since the calf/lamb/goat kid crop constitute the lion's share of the income for those tending livestock; keeping that newborn alive during this period will have dramatic effect on the operation's profitability.

In fact, over 75 percent of death loss occurs at birth or in the first two weeks afterwards and good management can increase the number weaned this fall. One way to get that newborn off to a good start is to ensure that it's getting colostrum, which is perhaps the most important step for overall health.

Colostrum is their only protection from disease until their own immune system develops the ability to respond to disease challenge. In general high quality colostrum is thick, syrupy, and yellow to tan in color -- which looks rather unappetizing, but is packed with the essentials for life.

Although colostrum is often referred to as "first milk", it's actually more similar to blood than milk. Being very high in immunoglobulins (antibodies) that assist in preventing infections, colostrum content is high in energy, fat, vitamins A and D, white blood cells and factors that influence growth. Colostrum antibodies only last for a few months, but are crucial to getting the newborn off to a good start.

The timing in which a newborn receives colostrum is very important -- and often the difference between life or death. The timing of colostrum intake, amount fed, and antibody concentration of the colostrum determines the success of absorption of antibodies by the calf. Calves, lambs, and goat kids are born with a finite number of receptors that are capable of absorbing antibodies into circulation.

These receptors have a limited lifespan, and are not replaced with normal cellular turnover in the gut. Within 24-hours after birth, the gut begins to "close," which means it becomes increasingly difficult to absorb the antibodies in the colostrum, and eventually, the animal's intestine becomes impermeable to the large proteins. Six hours after birth, they absorb about two-thirds of the immunoglobulins in colostrum, but at 36 hours after birth, they were able to absorb only 7 percent of immunoglobulins! So, timing is critical is survival of the newborn.

Colostrum refrigeration

Colostrum can be refrigerated for only about 1 week before quality declines. If you refrigerate colostrum, be sure that the refrigerator is cold (33-35 degrees Fahrenheit) to reduce the onset of bacterial growth. If the colostrum begins to show signs of souring, quality is reduced. The IgG molecules in colostrum that convey passive immunity to the newborn will be degraded by the bacteria, reducing the amount of immunity provided. Thus, it is important that colostrum be stored in the refrigerator for only a short time.

Freezing colostrum

Having a good quantity of frozen colostrum on for emergency situations should be evaluated before calving/lambing/kidding season begins. The problem is: how do you obtain this colostrum? Many producers obtain colostrum from another farm, but producer should be aware that of the risk of obtaining it from another location. Diseases like Johne's disease and salmonella can be transmitted via colostrum and can be a disaster for your herd. Most veterinarians recommend you never use colostrum from another farm.

The best ways to obtain colostrum are to: (1) milk out any mother that loses her calf for non-disease reasons in your herd or (2) take a small amount of colostrum from numerous mothers that have a more than adequate supply of colostrum, which can be labor intensive but worth the investment.

Thawing colostrum

The main concern regarding thawing frozen colostrum is to thaw the ice without degrading the immune proteins. This is best done with warm (not hot) water (less than 120 degrees) and allowing to thaw. Add more hot water to the bath as the frozen colostrum cools in the water. Alternately, colostrum can be thawed in a microwave oven with little damage to the Ig. It is important to microwave the colostrum for short periods on low power. Pour off the thawed liquid periodically to minimize heating.

It is also important to avoid "hot spots" inside the frozen colostrum. Use of a turntable can help to minimize damage. 

The bottom line is colostrum is an excellent source of nutrition and immune proteins. Treat it as a precious commodity.

Above all, don't forget to take time to appreciate that first miracle of birth -- and be thankful humans are born in more comfortable surroundings.

For more information on this, or other topics, contact me at the Polk County Extension office in McIntosh or at the Clearwater County Extension office on Wednesdays. Our toll free number is 800-450-2465. If e-mail is your thing, contact me at Source: Lori Weddle-Schott, Bethany Lovaas, DVM, University of Minnesota