Read the four stories covering this topic: Calves vs. scours and pneumonia: The survival challenge, How to prevent calf scours, How to prevent pneumonia, Get the lowdown on scours and Is your colostrum a health serum or bacterial soup?.
While no one would knowingly seed their newborn calves' digestive systems with bacteria, that's exactly what can happen with incorrect colostrum handling.
To deliver high-quality colostrum to your calves - in terms of protective antibody levels and low pathogen loads - follow the experts' advice:
Feed 4 quarts of fresh colostrum.
This "4-quart rule" forgives some of the variability in colostral antibody concentration. You may prefer to feed 2 quarts immediately after birth and 2 quarts four to six hours later. If the calf is not exhibiting a suckle reflex this soon, don't wait - use an esophageal feeder to deliver the colostrum.
Feed colostrum as soon as possible after birth.
Timing is critical. The goal is to get the first colostrum feeding to at least 50 percent of newborn calves within an hour after birth, and 80 percent of calves within two hours after birth.
Remember, for every half-hour after birth that colostrum feeding is delayed, antibody transfer decreases by roughly 5 percent. If 24 hours pass, virtually no chance exists for antibody transfer.
Select for high antibody concentration.
A colostrometer is one way to check the level of protective immunoglobins in colostrum. Only use colostrum with a "green" reading on the colostrometer for the first one or two feedings.
Consider reserving colostrum with the highest antibody concentrations for heifer calves. Cows that give less than 20 pounds of milk after calving tend to produce colostrum with high antibody concentrations.
Keep bacteria counts low.
Don't let the first feeding of colostrum become a calf's first major disease challenge. Inadequate milking preparation of the cow, dirty collection buckets or feeding equipment, and allowing too much time to pass between harvest and feeding can all contaminate fresh colostrum with bacteria before it reaches the calf. The amount of E. coli bacteria in fresh colostrum could typically be about 20,000 CFU/mL. But that count doubles every 20 minutes in warm colostrum. So, if it sits around for two hours before it gets into the calf, that count jumps to 1.2 million, and suddenly you're feeding "bacteria soup" instead of boosting the calf's immune system.
If you save colostrum for later use, chill it immediately. One trick you can use to chill colostrum quickly is to place two or three sanitary, 1-liter soda bottles filled with ice directly into the bucket that contains the colostrum milk. The ice bottles chill the colostrum instantly, and then are thrown away after a single use.
To make sure total bacteria counts in colostrum remain under 50,000 CFU/mL, collect and freeze samples of just-fed colostrum for five days in a row. Send them to the lab for bacterial profiling. The report will show you how many and what types of bacterial organisms are found in the colostrum.
Select for disease-free colostrum.
Vertical diseases like Johne's, BLV, salmonella and mycoplasma are passed from dam to calf via colostrum. To interrupt this cycle, discard colostrum from known-positive cows. Use a Johne's screening test on the dam. Although the test is not prefect, a negative result does tell you that the cow isn't shedding the disease at the present time. Only use colostrum from cows that test negative for Johne's.
Maureen Hanson is a freelance writer from La Porte City, Iowa.