One of the most crucial aspects of calf health is getting adequate amounts of high quality IgG into calves as soon as possible after birth, says Travis Thayer, DVM, AgriLabs. Proper collection, handling and administration of colostrum are essential to get calves off to a good start.

Along with recent advances in research about calf health, additional tools to aid in passive transfer have become available to the industry – colostrum supplements and colostrum replacers – that help producers achieve good passive transfer of antibodies for their calves.

Colostrum supplements vs. replacers
It is important to define the difference between colostrum supplements and colostrum replacers. Colostrum supplements can bolster a colostrum program by giving the calf additional antibodies and energy. Colostrum supplements are designed to be fed to a calf that is receiving some colostrum, and contain less than 100g of IgG per dose. Many of the popular brands contain 50-55 grams of IgG. There are various situations in which colostrum supplements may be of value, such as with calves born to thin beef cows that may not have a high-quality colostrum, dairies in short supply of good quality colostrum, etc.

Colostrum replacers, on the other hand, are designed to be fed to calves as a complete alternative to maternal colostrum, and are defined by the industry as containing more than 100 grams IgG per serving, along with other essential nutrients, such as vitamins, minerals, fat and   protein. As with many animal health and management tools, colostrum replacers are probably not necessary for every calf in every production situation. However, there are a number of situations in which veterinarians and producers may want to consider colostrum replacers.

One area where total colostrum replacers are of value is on dairies with intensive management programs designed to reduce transmission of disease, such as Johne’s (Mycobacterium avium subsp. paratuberculosis), from dam to calf. A 2009 University of Minnesota study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association indicated that in dairies using colostrum replacers in place of maternal colostrum, transmission of Johne’s was significantly reduced. With increased implementation of specific disease-targeted control programs in cattle production systems, colostrum replacers are of more value to the industry than ever.

When to use replacers/supplements
In spite of the implementation of good colostrum management, higher than desired calf morbidity/mortality and failure of passive transfer rates still occur in our industry. This can be due to a breakdown in the process of harvesting, testing, storing or administering colostrum in a timely manner. It can also be due to a lack of availability of high quality colostrum, be it from large numbers of animals being born, nutritional problems, inclement weather or other reasons. In those situations, colostrum supplements and replacers are great tools to get calves off to a proper start. Many producers keep a bag or two of these types of products around in case of a shortage of good colostrum, or in cases where colostrum collection is in doubt, such as in the case of employee error or equipment malfunction leading to contamination or bacterial overgrowth.

Because the process of proper colostrum management is complicated and leaves significant room for error, producers struggling with colostrum management may want to consider using colostrum replacers while troubleshooting the process. Research has shown that high counts of bacteria in colostrum increase failure of passive transfer rates. Since colostrum replacer products are mixed and used immediately, the risk of bacterial contamination contributing to failure of passive transfer is extremely low if clean equipment is used and the mixed product is handled with care. As dairies become larger and more and more employees are involved with the process, chances for errors arise, and the use of colostrum replacers dramatically reduces the chance of employee errors in getting crucial immunity to the calf.

There are many brands of colostrum supplements and replacers on the market, and they vary in quality, origin, ease of mixing, technical support, supportive data, and customer service. Veterinarians and producers should consider these factors before choosing a product, and consult their animal health suppliers for more information. These products have proven to be a great tool for the beef and dairy industries, and will likely play an even bigger role in raising healthy calves in the future.

Source: Bovine Veterinarian (sister publication to Dairy Herd Management), AgriLabs