Dairy Cattle: Why Their Colostrum Might Not Be Enough, According to a Veterinarian

Elizabeth Racine, DVM

Maternal colostrum has long been considered the gold standard in calf management. As dairy operations look for ways to improve herd health, questions arise about whether maternal colostrum is always enough. Colostrum is necessary for the passive transfer of immunity and colostrum management is an essential part of raising healthy calves. Not all colostrum is created equal, and farms must take extra steps to ensure each individual calf receives appropriate care.  Colostrum replacement products can be the solution to this problem. They provide the immune benefits of maternal colostrum while decreasing the variability and potential challenges of traditional colostrum management practices.

Producers may wish to consider incorporating colostrum replacer into their management program to address common issues such as:

Transfer of Disease

While colostrum is essential for calves to acquire healthy immune systems, maternal colostrum can be the source of disease. Cows spread bacteria in their milk. Colostrum from cows with signs of mastitis should not be fed to calves and this is one easy indication for the use of colostrum replacer.

The most significant risk of disease exposure comes from the bacteria that cause Johne's disease. This disease costs the dairy industry millions of dollars every year and great efforts are being made to eradicate it from herds. The bacteria that cause Johne's disease are found in manure and milk. Farms can do PCR testing before calving to identify Johne's positive cows. Colostrum from Johne's positive cows should not be fed to newborn calves and a high-quality colostrum replacer should be fed instead.

Bacteria can also decrease the efficiency of colostrum absorption in the gut and lead to failure of passive transfer of immunity. Dairy operations should take precautions to avoid the transfer of bacteria and disease during the collection and storage of maternal colostrum. Using colostrum replacement products is one way to achieve this. Colostrum replacement products significantly reduce the risk of disease spread from dam to offspring in the critical early hours of life.

Quality of Colostrum

Colostrum provides passive transfer of immunity from cows to their newborn calves. This immunity will protect the calf from disease while their own immune system develops. Protection is provided in the form of immunoglobulins, the most important one being IgG. High-quality colostrum is defined as colostrum that contains IgG levels greater than 50g/L.

Studies have shown that 23 percent of cows do not produce colostrum that meets these high-quality standards.1 Many factors can contribute to colostrum quality. Some of these factors include breed, genetics, age of dam, and delayed collection of colostrum. The age of the dam may be one of the more difficult hurdles to manage for dairy farms that have a large number of heifers. Third lactation cows have been found to produce higher quality colostrum than first and second lactation cows. This may be because older cows have had more time to develop a more robust immune system. Every cow is different, and each cow's colostrum should be tested before making assumptions on the quality.

If colostrum quality is a concern within the herd, colostrum replacement products can be beneficial. These products provide a known concentration of IgG. By picking a high-quality colostrum replacer, farms can provide calves with the immune support that their maternal colostrum may not.

Quantity of Colostrum
Just like the quality of the colostrum, the quantity of colostrum that a newborn calf consumes is critical to prevent failure of passive transfer of immunity. Following the Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC) Standards for Production of Dairy Cows, calves must consume 2-4 quarts of colostrum in the first six hours of life, six quarts in the first 12 hours of life, and at least six additional quarts in the next 24 hours of life.

In situations where the maternal colostrum is of poor quality, it may seem reasonable to compensate by feeding the calf a larger quantity of colostrum. However, this is not recommended. Even though IgG concentration is lower in poor quality colostrum, calves fed larger amounts of lower quality colostrum typically receive more than the 150-200g of IgG that is necessary. Studies have shown that too much IgG decreases the efficiency of absorption.

Getting the appropriate volume of maternal colostrum to the calf can be done in two ways. Dairy farms may use bottle feeding, or esophageal tube feeding to ensure adequate colostrum intake. Both bottle feeding and esophageal tube feeding allow for close monitoring of colostrum intake and assessment of a calf’s nursing ability.  However, esophageal tube feeding can be difficult and requires proper training of farm staff to perform correctly.

Farms that consistently have difficulty getting calves to drink a full 3-4L may find the use of colostrum replacers helpful. Some of these products provide the necessary amount of IgG in a more concentrated form than maternal colostrum. This allows calves to get the same amount of immune protection without the struggle to drink a full 4L.


Collection and testing of maternal colostrum can be a time-consuming and labor-intensive process. When calves are born in the middle of the night, fewer staff may be available for calf processing. Maternal colostrum management can be challenging at times like these. Calves require colostrum within the first four hours of birth. Unless there is dystocia, calves are typically not found the moment they are born. For this reason, getting quality colostrum to the calf needs to be done as quickly as possible.

Collecting fresh maternal colostrum for the first feeding may not be realistic for every facility. Frozen colostrum takes time to thaw and requires appropriate quality evaluation. Colostrum replacers are a quick and efficient way to provide immune support right when it is needed.

Colostrum Replacers: A Good Fit for Every Farm

Colostrum management is a complex dilemma. Providing adequate colostrum is vital for calf health and development. Producers should not discount the value of maternal colostrum, but it may not always be enough. Colostrum replacement products are an excellent way to ensure your calves are getting the right amount of the quality colostrum they need, when they need it.

La Belle® Colostrum
La Belle® Colostrum’s thermally treated colostrum supplements and replacers can guarantee industry standards of quality and safety, and it is a USDA-CVB licensed colostrum. La Belle supplements are available in IgG standardized powder forms to provide growth factors, immune factors, and nutrients to calves in critical stages of life. The product’s proprietary processing does not degrade immune and growth factors, and it retains bioactivity. It is dispersible and easy to mix, and features a three-year shelf life.

Dr. Elizabeth Racine is an animal nutrition consultant for PanTheryx APS LaBelle, manufacturer of La Belle® Colostrum, a USDA-CVB licensed colostrum.


  1. Godden, S. M., Lombard, J. E., & Woolums, A. R. (2019). Colostrum Management for Dairy Calves. The Veterinary clinics of North America. Food animal practice, 35(3), 535–556. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cvfa.2019.07.005