Colostrum Management


Source: National Farm Animal Care Council, Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Beef Cattle Section 4.2.1

Colostrum has an important influence on the health and welfare of calves. The newborn calf is born with no maternal antibodies and must rely on intake of colostrum to receive passive immunity. The timing of first colostrum is particularly important since calves’ ability to absorb colostrum is substantially reduced six to eight hours after birth. The ability of the calf to defend itself against infectious diseases is directly related to the amount (litres), quality (immunoglobulin level), and timing of colostrum intake. The result of inadequate colostrum intake is a low concentration of circulating immunoglobulin in the blood of the calf, a condition known as “failure of passive transfer”. Calves with failure of passive transfer are 1.6 times more likely to become sick and 2.7 times more likely to die before weaning than calves with adequate serum immunoglobulin levels (29).

Certain cases require special attention, as calves are at a greater risk of not receiving adequate colostrum by suckling. These include: difficult calvings, mis-motherings, calves with hypothermia, or dams with udder conformation that complicates nursing. Assume all abandoned or mis-mothered calves have not suckled.

Signs that a calf may not have received adequate colostrum may include:

  • weak or lethargic
  • lack of suckling reflex
  • cold mouth
  • gaunt appearance
  • dam has a full udder.


Monitor that newborn calves suckle their dams paying special attention to high risk cases.

Administer colostrum or a commercial colostrum substitute to any newborn calf showing signs of not having received it by suckling.


  1. administer two litres (1.8qt) of colostrum to calves that have not suckled within six hours of birth. In cold weather, intervene earlier to supplement calves
  2. learn how to safely use an esophageal (tube) feeder, as it may assist in administering colostrum to calves that will not suckle
  3. obtain supplemental colostrum from any of these sources: milked from the calf’s dam; pooled colostrum from other cows in the herd; commercial colostrum substitute. For biosecurity reasons, avoid using dairy cow colostrum.


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