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Colostrum: Are your cows producing the best they can?

Colostrum: Are your cows producing the best they can?

We all know the importance of quality colostrum, but it is easy to overlook the importance of dry cows and dry cow management when it comes to maximising colostrum quality.

Key factors which impact colostrum quality: 

  • Parity 
  • Nutrition 
  • Breed
  • Vaccinations
  • Health status 

Parity 

It has been common belief that first calving heifers produce low quality colostrum. Should we be questioning this way of thinking? A growing number of studies show heifers can produce equally good colostrum.

Factors to consider: 

  • Better vaccination programme - It has been common belief that first calving heifers produce low quality colostrum. Should we be questioning this way of thinking? A growing number of studies show heifers can produce equally good colostrum. 
  • Colostrum volume - Heifers produce lower quantities of colostrum resulting in higher concentration of immunoglobins, thus better quality. 
  • Less milk run - Heifers are less likely to leak colostrum pre-calving, meaning no quality is lost pre-calving. 

The only way to really know is to test colostrum! 

Nutrition 

Colostrum contains higher fat, protein, minerals, and immunoglobulins in comparison to whole milk. To produce high quality colostrum her feed must fulfil her nutritional requirements. A growing calf and decreasing rumen capacity meaning the cow needs to get more nutrients from lower dry matter intakes.

Energy and protein

Increased Starch 

  • Increased energy density of the diet.
  • Increased microbial synthesis = higher microbial protein production leading to increased immunoglobulin content. 

Rumen Protected Fats 

  • Also increase the energy density of the diet.
  • Can also improve udder health and SCC content in the next lactation.

By-pass and Protected Protein 

  • As the cow nears calving her intakes reduce and protein requirements for the growing calf and colostrum production increase – including bypass or even protected proteins in the diet helps meet these additional requirements when microbial protein production may be supressed.

Minerals 

  • Colostrum has a higher mineral content than whole milk, therefore adequate minerals must be provided to the cow.
  • Calves will store this in their livers and utilise for growth.

Remember, heifers themselves are still growing while growing a calf and synthesising colostrum so must divide their nutrients accordingly.

Breed

The breed and their milk composition can influence colostrum quality.

Yield - Higher yielding dairy cows often have poorer quality due to dilution factor.

Composition - Cows that produce milk with higher constituent levels tend to have higher immunoglobin content. 

Efficiency - Some cows are more efficient at moving antibodies into the colostrum than others so even cows within the same breed can have differing colostrum quality despite having the same external factors at play.  

Vaccination 

Vaccinating cows in late pregnancy has long been recognised as a method to improve colostrum quality. Vaccinating against scours pathogens may not increase the overall level of immunoglobulins in a cow’s bloodstream but increases the concentration of immunoglobulins specific to those they have vaccinated for.

Health status 

Focusing on the health status of the cow will significantly impact the health status of the calf. Logic would dictate that a cow with a poorer health status produces poorer quality colostrum.

Disease status - Cows with poor health status or known diseases e.g. Johne's and mycoplasma should be managed carefully and their colostrum should not be fed or stored. Purchased cows pose an increased risk of disease spread due to their unknown history. 

Pathogen exposure - Cows exposed to more pathogens will pass more immunoglobulins and protection to calf therefore homebred cows will be producing antibodies specific to the challenges on your farm. 

For more information and advice please contact a member of the Calf & Youngstock team.

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