Most cattle producers are aware that getting colostrum into the calf immediately is a critical step toward building the calf’s immunity and ability to survive and thrive.

But newer research is starting to quantify just how far-reaching the effects of colostrum are to the future performance of a calf.
“The immune system starts with colostrum when the calf is born. We are finding that proper calving time management, which includes nutrition for the cows and calves getting immediate and adequate colostrum, can help insure lower pre-weaning morbidity,” says Rachel Endecott, Extension beef cattle specialist with Montana State University.

She cites a Nebraska study that followed 1,568 calves from birth through the feedlot. It found that calves without adequate passive immunity from colostrum were twice as likely to get sick and five times more likely to die pre-weaning. That also translated to higher feedlot mortality among those calves that failed to get adequate colostrum as a newborn.

To demonstrate the affect colostrum may have on heifer performance, Endecott cites an Arizona study conducted with dairy heifers that showed higher culling rates during first lactation in heifers that were classified as having a failure of passive immunity from colostrum as a newborn calf.

Endecott says, “This might indicate some relationship between colostrum intake and cow longevity in the herd if those females are kept as a replacement. But this is only one study, and data is limited on the beef side.”

Further emphasizing the importance of colostrum, Endecott says research indicates not all colostrum is the same. An Idaho experiment with first-calf beef heifers looked at the quality of colostrum when females were fed differing levels of protein concentration prior to calving. The study found that cows fed low protein diets prior to calving had calves that were less able to absorb the immunoglobulins in colostrum compared to calves from dams fed adequate protein before calving. Thus, Endecott says cow nutrition also becomes critical for producing colostrum to benefit newborn calves.

The rule of thumb is that calves need colostrum as soon as possible in the first 24 hours of life, which is when they have the ability to absorb antibodies directly through their gut wall and into the blood stream. The gut wall ‘closes’ by the end of that 24-hour period. Calves can absorb more antibodies in the first one to two hours after birth than they can 20 to 24 hours after birth.