Calves need colostrum quickly after birth

Veterinarian says colostrum is needed within two hours; cattle producers say minutes better.

P.J. Griekspoor, Editor

January 28, 2021

4 Min Read
Cow in pen
HEALTHY BABIES: Cattle producers and veterinarians agree that the single most important factor in the health of baby calves is getting them up and nursing quickly while their gut can absorb the nutrition and antibodies from their mothers. P.J. Griekspoor

If you could pick any one thing to ensure good health for the newborn calves hitting the ground over the coming couple of months, it would the importance of getting them up and nursing as quickly as possible to fill their little bellies with warm colostrum, veterinarians and cattle producers agree.

“Most of the time, it’s not a problem for us,” said Debbie Lyons-Blythe, who raises cattle in the Flint Hills of Kansas, advocates for agriculture and writes the Kids, Cows and Grass blog. “Most of the time, the mama cow works hard to get that baby up and nursing in minutes. It’s rare that they don’t get it done on their own. We actually select for that, and if we get a cow who isn’t a good mama, she goes away.”

Lyons-Blythe said that there is another element to colostrum that is not as well publicized as the need for quick nursing.

“Not all colostrum is of equal quality,” she said. “A few years ago, I attended a workshop where they talked about the variability of the colostrum quality within a herd. Some of it relates to the health and nutrition of the cow in the months before birth. If she’s been sick or off feed, or the weather has been really brutal, the colostrum can have fewer of the antibodies the calf needs.”

Calves not born with immunities

Dr. Peggy Thompson, a veterinarian with Boehringer Ingelheim, said that unlike many other mammals, calves do not have any immunity to disease when they are born and are wholly dependent on getting antibodies from their mothers. The problem is that their ability to absorb those antibodies from colostrum begins breaking down as soon as they are born, making it essential for them to get colostrum quickly.

In a recent news release, Thompson laid out both the importance of colostrum and the need for speed.

“Receiving adequate colostrum during those first 24 hours will have a lifelong impact on a calf in terms of its ability to fend off disease, put on weight, and in the case of heifers, calve early,” she said. “And when it comes to transferring maternal antibodies from the cow to the calf, 24 hours is even too late.”

Thompson stressed that producers should do their best to ensure calves are up and nursing within two hours of being born.

“After just six hours, a calf’s gut begins to change, making it more difficult to absorb the immunity-boosting antibodies found in colostrum,” she said. “As we’ve learned more about colostrum over the years, the general practice has gone from making sure calves are nursing within the first 24 hours, to 12, to six and now the recommendation is two hours.”

Lyons-Blythe said she also vaccinates cows at pregnancy testing to ensure that they have abundant antibodies to pass along in the colostrum and that after learning about the variability of quality between cows, she has added a colostrum bolus replacement that is fed to every baby calf when it is tagged, usually within 24 hours of birth.

“We hope the calf gets a good boost from the mom, but we have learned how important those antibodies are and we think it is worth the investment to give them the bolus and ensure that they start life with the best immune system possible,” she said. “We know that the health and performance of that calf for all of its life hinges on them getting the nutrition and antibodies from that first colostrum.”

Greg McCurry, a partner in McCurry Brothers Angus at Mount Hope, agrees that getting colostrum quickly is probably the most important health factor for a newborn calf.

“I’d say, you need it up and nursing in minutes, not hours,” he said. “The sooner the better. You don’t want a calf born in the afternoon still on the ground when the sun goes down.”

He said McCurry Brothers vaccinate all their cows to ensure that they will have strong antibodies in the colostrum.

“We also really watch their nutrition to make sure they are in as good a shape as we can make them before they get to late pregnancy. And we do keep some replacement products on hand in case we have a cow that has some kind of problem at birth. But my experience has been that the substitutes are better than nothing, but not as good as the real stuff.”

This article contains information provided by Boehringer Ingelheim.


About the Author(s)

P.J. Griekspoor

Editor, Kansas Farmer

Phyllis Jacobs "P.J." Griekspoor, editor of Kansas Farmer, joined Farm Progress in 2008 after 18 years with the Wichita Eagle as a metro editor, page designer, copy desk chief and reporter, covering agriculture and agribusiness, oil and gas, biofuels and the bioeconomy, transportation, small business, military affairs, weather, and general aviation.

She came to Wichita in 1990 from Fayetteville, N.C., where she was copy desk chief of the Fayetteville Observer for three years. She also worked at the Pioneer Press in St. Paul, Minn. (1980-87), the Mankato Free Press in Mankato, Minn. (1972-80) and the Kirksville Daily Express in Kirksville, Mo. (1966-70).

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