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Is your dairy calf colostrum top-grade?

Calf milk colostrum quality can be predicted by her momma's previous lactation performance and the weather.

Every dairy cow’s success begins with the quality of her first drink – colostrum. It sets the stage for the rest of her productive life.

Research recently conducted at University of New Hampshire with 18 Granite State dairy farms confirms that colostrum quality is more predictable than initially thought. And when you collect it is also important.

Key findings
The more lactations a cow has had, the higher the quality of colostrum in the future. Sure, you may already have known that. Older cows tend to produce stronger colostrum providing better calf immunity.

That means you can predict colostrum quality before the calf is born. You can estimate colostrum’s critical Immunoglobulin G content without having to collect it. And you can store top-quality colostrum from those cows for use on other calves.

Michael Lunak and Peter Erickson, UNH Extension dairy specialists, also learned that the poorest quality colostrum was produced during winter. They theorize that in warmer temperatures, the blood vessels of the cow dilate, causing them to be more permeable to IgG. That increased permeability may lead to improved colostrum. That’s another reason why top dairy farms often “stockpile” high-quality colostrum.

“It’s apparent that environmental temperature or day length has an impact on colostrum quality,” notes Lunak. And Erickson adds: “Special care should be taken to ensure colostrum of the highest quality is provided to the newborn calf.”

The following farms participated in the study: Bodwell Dairy, Bohannon Farm, Briarstone Farm, Highway View Dairy, Fernald Farm, Fitch Farm, Grafton County Farm, Houston’s Pine Lane Farm, Jones Dairy Farm, Morrill Farm Dairy, Naughtaveel Farm, Perkins Dairy, Pomeroy Dairy, Stuart Farm, Tullando Farm, UNH Fairchild Dairy Teaching and Research Center, Wyndyhurst Holsteins, and Yeaton Farm. 

Testing that first drink is huge
As already noted, colostrum quality sets the stage for that heifer’s future performance. Erickson and Lunak point out that low-quality colostrum or inadequate feeding to newborn calves can reduce growth rates, increase risk of disease and death, increase the probability of culling, and reduce milk production during first and second lactations – the highest ones.

Yet, according to USDA, only 5.7% of U.S. dairy producers evaluated colostrum quality using a colostrometer. Many either don’t have access to a colostrometer or refractometer, or don’t take time to test for quality.

Colostrum-saving storage tips
Here’s a quick summary on how to preserve colostrum quality for future use from Dr. Sam, veterinarian at Attica Veterinary Associates, Attica, N.Y.

* Fresh colostrum should be refrigerated for no more than 5 to 7 days, before Ig quality declines. Be sure the refrigerator is cold (33 to 35 degrees Fahrenheit) to reduce bacterial growth.

* Colostrum may be frozen for up to a year (at -5 degrees Fahrenheit) without significant Ig decomposition. Since frost-free freezers go through freeze-thaw cycles that can allow colostrum to thaw and lose antibody content, those types of freezers aren’t encouraged. They can markedly shorten colostrum storage life.

* Freezing one-quart amounts in 1- or 2-gallon zip-closure storage bags is an excellent storage method. But use two bags to minimize leaking, and lay them flat in the freezer. That speeds the thawing process when you’re reading use them. Two-quart nursing bottles are also often used.

* High-quality fresh colostrum is best, for one reason: Freezing it destroys white blood cells (leukocytes and lymphocytes) that stimulate calf immune response against infection. 

* If you allow too much time between collection and chill-out and warm-up to feeding, you’re allowing bacterial growth to continue on both ends. This merely opens the gate wider to “garbage in, garbage out”.

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