Editor's note: The following article ran in the March 2011 edtion of Dairy Herd Management.

A Florida grazing operation has found it is better off feeding a commercial colostrum replacer than maternal colostrum.

Because there are a large number of cows calving on a seasonal basis — upwards of 50 a day in the fall and early winter — it is difficult to manage the colostrum from that many individual cows on a consistent basis. And, the farm’s nutritionist does not like the idea of pooling colostrum, since it creates biosecurity concerns. 

“I believe if you keep things simple, they will get done,” says nutritionist Joey Ricks. “And, (the way things were set up previously) that colostrum program was not simple and it was not getting done.”

So, during his first year on the job, Ricks began feeding commercial colostrum replacer to the calves, and the results have been astounding. Of 780 heifer calves born this past calving season, the farm has lost just 23 of them — a death loss of 2.9 percent. It is a vast improvement from previous years. 

“Death loss, I feel, is costly and limits our rate of expansion through internal growth,” Ricks says. “And, right now, we are in expansion mode.”

There are definitely situations where the quality of maternal colostrum cannot be guaranteed and a colostrum replacer should be considered. 

A widespread problem

The fact of the matter is, many farms fail when it comes to colostrum management.

“A significant percentage of the calves either aren’t being fed quality colostrum or they are being fed later than they should be,” says calf-care expert Jim Quigley, vice president and director of calf operations at APC, Inc. in Ankeny, Iowa.

Over the past two years, Quigley and co-workers at APC cooperated with Iowa State University and Fresno State University to survey colostrum management on farms across the U.S.  Based on these studies, it is Quigley’s observation that most farms have some problem with colostrum management, whether the colostrum is too low in protective immunoglobulins, or it’s too high in bacteria or other contaminants, or it’s not being fed to the calves in a timely manner.

In fact, nearly half of 890 samples tested in the Iowa study had bacteria above the critical level of 100,000 cfu/ml or greater, considered the upper limit for acceptable quality. The research in California collected more than 500 colostrum samples and indicated that the degree of contamination varies by farm, level of management, season and whether the colostrum is supplemented with commercial supplements. 

Avoid problems  

Sam Leadley, calf/heifer management specialist at Attica Veterinary Associates in upstate New York, has had situations where he is called onto a farm to fix a problem and colostrum replacer is short-term solution until the farm can get a better handle on things.

“The most obvious example is disease control, and the most obvious disease is Johne’s,” he says. With Johne’s, until you can establish which cows are high-risk, you have to assume that all cows can pose a risk to the calves, he adds. In that case, it may be prudent to switch to a colostrum replacer.

At other farms where calf mortality is high — 10 percent to 20 percent — a colostrum replacer can give you some breathing room until the problem is diagnosed and fixed.

“The chances are probably two out of three that the colostrum-management program (on those particular farms) is badly broken,” Leadley says. In many cases, the colostrum that’s being fed is no longer colostrum; it’s bacterial soup, he adds.

And, while there are emergency situations for feeding colostum replacers, there are other situations where colostrum replacers are fed because they are convenient.

Perhaps a farm will want to feed maternal colostrum to its calves during the day, when the herdsman and others are normally there. But, it may be more convenient for the night crew to feed colostrum replacer if it is busy with other chores.

“I think it’s a staffing question, I think it’s a convenience question,” Leadley says. “A lot of the time, the night crew has very little time to take care of newborn calves.”


Joey Ricks, the nutritionist who works with a grazing operation in Florida, says he has decided to use colostrum replacer for four reasons:

1.  To ensure a high level of antibodies in the form of immunoglobulin.

2.  To keep the colostrum free of pathogens.

3.  To make it simple and easy for the hired labor.

4.  To make it easy to store and handle.

Granted, maternal colostrum is still the gold standard. But, a number of farms still aren’t providing the kind of maternal colostrum that calves need. In this case, a colostrum replacer can be a bridge between the high expectations people have for their calves and reality.

Decision-tree approach

You might consider using a colostrum replacer if:

•   Maternal colostrum is not of high-enough quality. Are you ensuring quality with a colostrometer or Brix refractometer? Feed colostrum that registers in the “green” zone on a colostrometer or 22 percent or higher on a Brix refractometer. Periodically check the status of calves by taking blood samples at 24 to 72 hours of age and have those checked for either serum total protein (on a refractometer) or serum immunoglobulin “IgG” by your veterinarian.

“Total protein values can vary depending on the globulin protein source,” says David Carlson, technical services manager for Milk Products in Chilton, Wis. “Total protein measured by a refractometer may be the most practical way to assess passive transfer on farm, but the cut-point of 5.2 g/dL (considered the minimum for successful passive transfer) is the most applicable to calves fed maternal colostrum.” If you are using a colostrum replacer, this number could be lower, as colostrum replacers are typically very concentrated, and the total amount of non-globulin protein is often lower than in maternal colostrum. The amount of IgG or globulin protein in a colostrum replacer should be guaranteed on the package, but absorption varies by product. Your veterinarian can advise on how to test for serum IgG to confirm that the product you are using is effective.

•   Maternal colostrum is contaminated with too much bacteria. Again, take samples and have them tested. Target bacteria count (also known as Standard Plate Count) is less than 100,000 cfu/ml. Target coliform bacteria count is less than 10,000 cfu/ml.

•   There is the possibility of disease transmission through the colostrum, such as Johne’s.

•   There are staffing issues where it is difficult to ensure that maternal colostrum can be delivered in a consistent manner. Colostrum replacers are usually more convenient to administer.