Colostrum is gold!  It is the single most important part of getting your calves off to a good start in life.  It is amazingly high in digestible energy, and loaded with antibodies to help the calf fight infections.  It is best of all when it is the first two milkings from 3 - 8 year old cows.


Every calf requires 10% of its body weight (3 - 4 litres) in colostrum in the first 10 hours of life.  During the first 24 hours after birth, the gut is permeable to the ingested antibodies, and they can be absorbed into the calf’s blood stream to offer systemic protection. After that the gut is effectively “closed” and although (for the next few weeks) the calf still benefits from the high energy component of the colostrum, the antibodies provide only temporary protection at a local level on the gut lining.


It is not safe to assume that calves are getting the required amount of quality colostrum from their mothers in this time.  NZ studies have shown that only about 50% of calves do receive this!  We therefore recommend that every calf is directly drenched with 2lt of high quality, fresh colostrum via a Bovivet Calf Drencher, as soon as it is taken to the calf shed, and another 2lt a few hours later.  Colostrum should continue to be part of the diet as long as possible. Once calves are 48 hours old (and up to three weeks) you can start using colostrum from 3rd, 4th etc milkings, and/or diluting it with whole milk.


If you have any queries about your colostrum management, Clutha Vets have an in-house colostrum quality meter.  We can also blood test young calves to check they are getting the antibodies required.  This blood test is a standard part of our calf scours investigation.


What is the best way to keep this colostrum for feeding older calves?  Bacteria in the milk and from the environment ferment the lactose (sugar) into lactic acid.  As the pH falls, no further spoilage happens (just like making silage or yoghurt!). Under outdoor New Zealand conditions, with twice a day stirring, the colostrum will remain stable and usable like this for up to 2 months, with just a gradual reduction in antibody levels to 50% in 28 days, and similar nutritional value to whole milk.


Some people like to add preservatives to help. Citric or formic acid, hydrogen peroxide or yoghurt can all be used. However, simplest of all is a commercial product, Nutricare’s “Colostrum Keeper”.  There’s a set inclusion rate, and using this preservative, colostrum will keep up to three months. A single tub will treat 2000 litres.


Most scours in NZ calves are “nutritional” – caused by the food, feeding or environmental conditions (eg weather) rather than infectious bugs. Of the infectious causes, viruses and parasites are much more common than bacteria, and so antibiotics have a limited place in managing calf scours.  The corner stone of therapy is maintaining fluid and energy intake, and with a non-infectious cause, a binder like bentonite may have a place.