You may want to start putting milk in the tank to begin generating income as quickly as possible after cows freshen. But Dr. Jeremy Schefers, at the University of Minnesota Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, says that’s penny-wise and pound-foolish when it comes to limiting scours in calves.

“About half of the total antibodies a cow produces for her offspring are contributed to the second- and third-day milk,” says Schefers. “Colostrum delivery is critical, but if the calf is switched to whole milk or milk replacer on Day 2 of life, it’s missing out on half of the protective antibodies the cow had intended the calf to ingest. Every other neonatal mammal (beef calves, lambs, piglets, etc.) on the planet nurses transition milk, and the dairy calf should be afforded the same opportunity.”  

You can’t buy the same protection in a bottle – only maternal milk contains the antibodies calves need to fight scours pathogens until the calf’s own immune system is developed. But there is a role for a bottle and syringe nonetheless, in the form of dry-cow vaccinations. “If the dams are not vaccinated for rotavirus, coronavirus and other pathogens, the cows won’t produce the right antibodies to protect their calves’ intestines,” says Schefers.

 He also notes the Pasteurized Milk Ordinance (PMO) dictates fresh-cow milk be withheld from sale for 72 hours, and many dry-cow antibiotics have a similar withholding time. Other transition-milk thoughts from Schefers include:

  • Most protection stays in the gut – While circulating antibodies in the bloodstream often are referenced when discussing immune protection in newborn calves, only about 30% of colostrum antibodies actually go into the blood. The other 70% stay in the intestinal tract, and many remain there for up to 5 days after feeding. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because that’s where the scours-causing organisms are,” notes Schefers. “The antibodies will bind, or ‘mop up’ viruses in the intestines.”
  • Treat it like colostrum -- "Obviously, transition milk should be handled, stored and fed in a clean manner," says Schefers.
  • Freeze additional doses – If it is not practical to provide transition milk to calves on their second, third, and fourth days of life, the same effect can be achieved by freezing small portions of colostrum and adding them to whole milk or milk replacer.
  • Beware of Crypto. – If scours problems persist even when transition milk is fed, the causative organism could be Cryptosporidium spp. “Antibodies in transition milk don’t appear to alleviate Cryptospordiosis, but cleaning fecal residue from older calves throughout the calf-housing environment will,” advises Schefers.

Schefers adds there is virtually no milk-price scenario that would make it more economically beneficial to sell transition milk rather than feed it to your calves. “A gallon of colostrum has a value of more than $60 to the calf, and a gallon of transition milk that would prevent scours has a conservative estimate of about $30 per gallon,” he says. “That $30/gallon translates into a milk price of about $300.00/cwt.”           

Looking at another way, would you rather sell a few pounds of milk, then turn around and pay for medication, labor, and lost performance associated with scours? “The antibodies in transition milk have much more value in calves’ intestines than they do in a block of cheese,” says Schefers.