Support early life calf health with extended colostrum and transition milk feedings

Posted on June 27, 2023 in Dairy Performance
By Lucas Mitchell, Ph.D., Vita Plus dairy calf and heifer specialist

Calves are quite susceptible to disease in their first four weeks of life.  How these challenges are combatted varies from farm to farm, but a couple of items consistently ring true:

1. Successful calf raising always starts with good colostrum management.  At least 1 gallon of colostrum – enough to provide at least 150 grams of immunoglobulin (IgG) – should be fed within the first two hours of life and at a feeding temperature of 100 to 105 degrees F.  It should contain no more than 100,000 colony-forming units (CFU) of bacteria per milliliter.

2. Early life health impacts performance later in life.  Calves with health struggles early in life tend to have reduced growth rates through pre- and post-weaning periods, reduced reproductive performance, and reduced performance in the lactating herd.  This has led to increased interest in feeding strategies beyond the first 24 hours of life, which may be beneficial to early life health.

This is where extended colostrum feeding and transition milk feeding come into play.  The objective of these feeding strategies is to provide the calf with liquid feed that more closely mimics what they would receive from the cow as she transitions from producing colostrum to producing mature milk.  Colostrum and transition milk have increased levels of fat, protein, IgG and other bioactive components compared to mature milk.

While the precise modes of action have not been fully elucidated, extended colostrum and transition milk feedings in the first couple of weeks of life have been shown to improve the early life performance of calves.  Those benefits include improved gut maturation, increased starter grain consumption, increased preweaning growth rate, and reduced scours and respiratory disease incidence – leading to a reduction in antibiotic use.

The following are examples of how some farms have successfully implemented post-day-one feeding strategies.

Strategy 1. Supplement the milk meal with a colostrum replacer from two to 14 days of age.  This option has the fewest management changes and, therefore, is likely the easiest to implement.  However, it is also the most expensive option.  The recommendation is to supplement calves with 10 grams of IgG per day.  To ensure this strategy is implemented properly and as cost-effectively as possible, consider the cost per gram of IgG and how much total product needs to be added per feeding to hit the target of 10 grams of IgG per day.

Strategy 2. Supplement the milk meal with colostrum cubes from two to 14 days of age.  This strategy is more cost-effective, but requires some extra work and clean freezer space.  This is an excellent option for producers with an excess colostrum supply.  The key is to sanitarily harvest high-quality colostrum from cows that have been vaccinated for rotavirus and coronavirus.  Heat-treat colostrum to keep bacteria levels as low as possible.  If colostrum doesn’t score between 22% and 24% with a Brix refractometer, it can be boosted with a colostrum replacer prior to feeding.

Fill ice cube trays with colostrum and place them in a freezer.  Use two colostrum cubes per calf per meal from day two to 14.

Strategy 3. Feed transition milk from two to four days of age or longer.  This is another cost-effective option that requires some extra work and management considerations.  The farm will need a protocol to collect the milk during the second through the fifth post-calving milkings, and to keep it separate from other fresh or treated milk.  Transition milk should be pasteurized to manage bacteria loads.

Due to the impacts of early life health, it is important to consider all available options to increase early health and performance.  Extended colostrum feedings for the first couple of weeks, or feeding transition milk for the first few days, are a couple of options that may help farmers take the next step with their calf program.

This article was originally written for the February 2023 issue of Progressive Dairy.  Click here for the original article.

About the author:
 Dr. Lucas Mitchell is a Vita Plus calf and heifer specialist.  He grew up working on his family’s dairy farm in Indiana and attended Purdue University, where he received his bachelor’s degree in food science in 2013.  He worked in the food industry before returning to academics to pursue a Ph.D. in animal science, with a focus on dairy nutrition, at Penn State University.  His research focused on the impacts forage type and quantity have on growth, intake, and metabolism of recently weaned calves.  Mitchell provides on-farm support in Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio.  He also works closely with the Vita Plus calf team to apply current research and provide custom solutions to meet the needs of calf and heifer raisers.

Category: Animal health
Calf nutrition
Colostrum management
Dairy Performance