Calf care checklist: 5 steps to stay ahead of a colostrum slump

Posted on October 19, 2022 in Starting Strong - Calf Care
By Dr. Bethany Dado-Senn, Vita Plus dairy calf and heifer specialist
Cooler weather is just around the corner and with it comes a decrease in colostrum yields on some dairy farms. The reasons behind the “colostrum slump” phenomenon are multifactorial and covered in a companion article. If your farm has a seasonal decrease in colostrum production across the late-fall and early-winter months, the following proactive steps can help you maintain a constant supply of high-quality colostrum for your valuable replacement herd.

1. Review your historical data and current colostrum protocols. Work with your nutritionist or local calf specialist to review any prospective and historical data you may have regarding fall and winter calving numbers, seasonal colostrum yields, and calf passive transfer success rates. Questions to consider include:

  • Have your herd’s colostrum yields changed across different seasons? If so, by how much?
  • Have you changed your colostrum feeding program in the last year? How might that impact your inventory this fall? Do you need change protocols temporarily to get through this season?
  • Have you observed seasonal differences in calf serum total proteins? Can this be attributed to colostrum quantity?

2. Manage your dry cows to support additional colostrum yields. A recent webinar from Cornell University highlighted some key dry cow management steps that may enhance mammary biology and improve colostrum yields. These include:

  • Adjust close-up dry cow rations to include 1,100 to 1,300 grams of metabolizable protein, 15% to 18% dietary starch, and well-processed straw with a total dry matter (DM) of 45% to 47%. Target intakes for this ration would be around 30 pounds of DM.
  • Increase dry period length to 60 days or more to allow a greater turnover of the milk-producing mammary epithelial cells.
  • Prevent dry period heat stress through proper shading and ventilation as heat stress can reduce calving interval and impair mammary redevelopment.

3. Maximize your maternity returns. Recently fresh cows getting milked for the first time postpartum could be leaving colostrum on the table. Speak with your maternity crew about:

  • Ensuring cattle are thoroughly milked before the milking unit is removed.
  • Stimulate milk letdown through a calm, consistent environment. Oxytocin stimulation, particularly for first-lactation heifers, can also be considered.

4. Build or refine your colostrum inventory. Colostrum and subsequent milkings are valuable commodities that can be inventoried for future use. Of course, excess colostrum availability may vary greatly depending on your current colostrum feeding program (such as providing more than one colostrum feeding, following up with a first-milk feeding, etc.), but consider how you may build your inventory in light of these factors.

  • Test colostrum quality with a Brix refractometer and batch accordingly. Current Dairy Calf and Heifer Association Gold Standards suggest 1 gallon of colostrum with greater than 22% total protein, followed by 0.5 gallons within 8 to 12 hours (assuming average birth weight of 90 pounds). Any remaining or lower-quality colostrum can be frozen for future use. Lower-quality colostrum can be frozen to feed to bulls and higher-quality for heifers. Be sure to record quality either on the colostrum bottle, bag or inventory sheet.
  • Heated, thawed, and/or partially fed colostrum should not be frozen or re-frozen, so take that into consideration when pulling frozen colostrum to feed a calf.
  • Harvest and store first, second, and third milkings from recently fresh cows. Test the quality and designate as first or second feedings for heifers (higher-quality) or bulls (lower-quality, blended).

5. Keep a high-quality colostrum replacer on hand. Work with your calf specialist to select and stock a quality colostrum replacer as a backup in times of need.  Choose a product that provides adequate immunoglobulin proteins in a single dose. It should also quickly and easily mix into solution to make the feeding process efficient and help ensure all the nutrients are absorbed by the calf instead of sticking to a pail. Click here for more tips on choosing a colostrum replacer.

Adequate colostrum volume and quality are both necessary factors in promoting proper immune function in nursery calves. While we often focus on quality, issues in colostrum availability can sneak up and rear an ugly head. But through advanced planning and strategy implementation, you can save and build colostrum inventories to ensure that a slump in colostrum doesn’t lead to a slump in calf performance.

Category: Animal health
Colostrum management
Starting Strong - Calf Care