“There’s something in colostrum other than IGgs that’s telling that calf how to grow better,” says Cornell’s Mike Van Amburgh.
“There’s something in colostrum other than IGgs that’s telling that calf how to grow better,” says Cornell’s Mike Van Amburgh.

Do you feed colostrum to your calves for four days? Probably not, but research shows you should consider it.

For years, researchers and extension educators alike have preached the role colostrum has in improving the health of calves. Most farmers know first milking colostrum should be fed to the calf within 6-8 hours after birth for the calf to be able to absorb all of the nutrients and antibodies available to it. However, new research shows calves benefit from being fed colostrum at more than just the first feeding.

Research from Mike Van Amburgh at Cornell University says a calf fed colostrum for four days will be a more efficient animal, growing faster and potentially making more milk per lactation over her lifetime.

“Colostrum is known to be rich in a variety of nutrients, but also non-nutritive factors like hormones,” he says. “Adequate intake of these non-nutritive factors appears to have a significant impact on pre and post weaning efficiency.”  Colostrum and milk are not just a nutrient supply but appear to be communication vehicle from the dam to the calf.

A study conducted by Steinhoff-Wagner in 2011 showed colostrum feeding as compared to iso-nutrient levels of a milk-based formula enhanced the glucose uptake of calves fed solely colostrum for up to four days of life. In that experiment, calves were fed first milking colostrum at the first and second meals, and then third and fourth milking colostrum was fed over the next three days to examine differences in dietary glucose uptake, insulin responsiveness and endogenous glucose production, says Van Amburgh.

Significantly Greater Average Dairy Gain

Studies conducted in 2004 and 2005 both demonstrated the importance of colostrum in relation to feed intake and a calf’s ability to gain weight pre and post weaning. In an effort to extend the data from those studies, Van Amburgh and Cornell student, Fernando Soberon, examined the effect of colostrum status on pre-weaning average daily gain and also looked at the impact of varying milk replacer intake after colostrum ingestion. Calves fed the highest amount of colostrum in the study had “significantly greater” average daily gains pre-weaning and post-weaning, according to Van Amburgh. They also had higher post-weaning feed intake, he says.

“There’s something in colostrum other than IGgs that’s telling that calf how to grow better,” Van Amburgh says. “The observations from these experiments reinforce the need to ensure calves receive as much colostrum as possible over the first 24 hours and possibly the first four days as described by Steinhoff-Wagner to ensure greater nutrient availability and absorption for the calf.”

So How Do You Do It Practically?

How does he recommend you make feeding colostrum to calves for four days practical? The calf should receive colostrum from the first milking within six hours of birth and then first milking colostrum again at 12 hours. Second milking colostrum should be fed to calves on the second day and the third and fourth milking colostrum for days three and four.

“You probably can’t make a meal of third and fourth milking colostrum, but you probably have enough you could feed it to those calves,” he says. “The first four days the gut is receptive to those factors that will enhance glucose uptake and enhance growth.”  

According to Van Amburgh, we see this kind of feeding behavior in other mammals but our management practices sometimes get in the way of the mother trying to send signals to the calf via mammary secretion. Upping a calf’s colostrum intake can help that. 


Note: This story appears in the May 2017 issue of Dairy Herd Management.