The Q’s and A’s of Colostrum in Ruminants

It cannot be understated that colostrum is vitally important to getting young livestock off to a good start. Research continues to teach us just how critical the beginning period of an animal’s life is to the health and production they will achieve throughout their lifetime. By addressing the following questions, we can determine if we are meeting the colostrum needs of our animals.

Q: Why emphasize the importance of quality colostrum?
In utero ruminant neonates do not receive antibodies from the dam. Ruminant neonates must receive clean, quality colostrum, which contains antibodies that can help support the animal’s immune system.

Q: Are there any changes occurring in the industry with colostrum feedings?

Recently, practices have been shifting to provide two feedings of colostrum instead of one—the first feeding occurring within 6 hours of birth and the second one within 24 hours. Research has been conducted about the benefits of feeding colostrum and transition milk to dairy calves through the first couple of days; however, this is labor-intensive and not used industry- wide. Eventually, there will probably be a way to implement this research to benefit the health and longevity of calves.

In small ruminants, it’s common practice to feed colostrum for a minimum of the first 18 hours of life. The gut lining is not completely closed until 24 hours after birth, allowing antibodies (and bacteria) to cross the gut lining into the bloodstream. Research in dairy goats has shown that within 6 hours after birth, the animal begins to produce their own digestive enzymes that digest antibodies, making it essential to administer the first dose of colostrum in a lamb or kid as quickly as possible after birth. The more colostrum a lamb or kid can consume in the first 12 hours of life, the better. We rarely get the full dose of colostrum into small ruminants promptly unless they are tubed (3oz/lb of birthweight), but 8 oz provided within the first 12 hours is better than nothing. Compared to calves, lambs and kids are being fed much more frequently, with feeding often occurring every 4 hours for the first 24-48 hours of life.

Q: How do you measure the quality of colostrum?
Current practices utilize a Brix Refractometer, which uses a scale to determine IgG quantity in the sample. Producers can also use a Hydrometer/Colostrometer; however, the sample must be at room temperature, and the Hydrometer/Colostrometer is made of glass and easy to break.

It is important to measure colostrum. There are myths that certain types of cows have better quality; however, research shows there is a lot of variation from cow to cow. Also, you cannot tell the quality of colostrum by just looking at it.

Q: How do I use a Brix Refractometer?
Calibration is key. For an optical Brix, use distilled water on the lens, lower cover, and hold perpendicular to a light source. When looking through the eyepiece, the blue and clear lines should be on the “0” line. If not, use the screwdriver to adjust until the blue and clear lines meet on the “0” line. Wipe with a lint-free wipe.

Next, put your sample on the lens. Look through the eyepiece and see where the blue and clear lines meet. The goal is to be above 22%.

Q: What colostrum technology is available?
There are colostrum replacer products available on the market. However, producers need to follow the instructions for individual products to make sure calves receive enough immunoglobins to prevent failure of passive transfer.

A common mistake in small ruminants is the use of colostrum supplement instead of colostrum replacer and using a lower quality colostrum replacer. Finding a quality colostrum replacer and following the use instructions will ensure an excellent start for lambs and kids.