The author is a partner in the Maria Stein Animal Clinic, Maria Stein, Ohio.

A silver bullet is a simple and seemingly magical solution to a complicated problem. Many would maintain that they exist only in fiction, but colostrum is a real life example.

The bovine placenta is complex, preventing bacteria, viruses, and immunity from crossing from dam to calf. Nature compensated by providing cows colostrum as a magical way to transfer immunity to these innocent calves. Calves need to get enough clean colostrum soon after birth to achieve an immune status we call passive transfer.

The most common way for calves to have failure of passive transfer is to allow them to suckle their dams. Only 25% of these calves suckle enough to achieve immunity. These calves are also exposed to cow manure, so they are twice as likely to die by weaning. It is far better for us to intervene than allow nature to be in control.

Up against the clock

These interventions are a race against time. The cow has spent weeks putting all of the special components into colostrum. At calving, the cow begins producing milk, which dilutes the colostrum.

Meanwhile, the calf experiences a process called gut closure. At birth, the openings in the gut wall are very large, allowing the immune proteins to be absorbed. Over the next 12 to 24 hours, the size of the openings reduces until no immunity is absorbed. Colostrum contains over 200 bioactive compounds, and the table shows some of the significant differences between colostrum and milk.

Transition milk, which comes after colostrum, has components that shift toward milk over time. It does not offer immunity but has superior nutrition compared to milk.

Bacterial contamination of either milk or colostrum reduces the ability of the gut to absorb immunity and challenges the calf with pathogens that can create infections like scours or require the immune system to use energy to combat them. That energy could have been used for growth. Bacteria double every 20 minutes until it reaches a cold temperature. This is another race. A contaminated silver bullet is not as good as a clean one, and it can actually be worse than no colostrum at all.

Be willing to change

Bill was a new client who had some trouble raising calves, and scours was common. One out of eight calves didn’t make it to weaning, and he regularly had to buy replacement heifers from a neighbor. I asked what he was doing.

He said, “We leave calves with their dams in the big group pen until our next 3x milking, then the calf goes to the calf barn. We milk the cow last in the parlor and feed the calf a gallon of colostrum.”

I asked when there were people in the barn and how many cows were in the calving pen. He said people were in the barn about half the time, and there were always two, and sometimes three or four, cows in the pen.

The change we made was to milk fresh cows in the next group, meaning the cow never waited more than five hours compared to nine hours before. One of the staff members immediately fed a gallon of colostrum to the calf. This slowed down milking for just 10 minutes if the pusher or feeder was not available. The calf was offered another 2 quarts six to 12 hours later.

Calves were moved to a clean zone as soon as they were found. This was created by placing a round bale feeder with a door on it in the middle of the big calving pen. Calves were moved from the clean zone twice a day by the calf crew. Cows could reach in and lick calves off, but young animals were not exposed to adult cow manure or the risk of injury.

We switched from buckets to bottles for feeding calves and had a strict wash routine of rinse, wash, acid rinse, and sanitize, like what is done for other milking equipment. Scours dropped dramatically and death loss was cut in half.

Do it right

Months later, Bill was happy but wondering if he could do better. His milk replacer salesperson was pushing for him to get a colostrum pasteurizer. Pasteurizers can be helpful when they work, and there are disease control plans that require them.

We do bacterial quantifications of pasteurized milk in our lab every week. It is rare that they all meet standards of less than 20,000 colony forming units (cfu) of total bacteria and less than 1,000 cfu of coliforms. Farms pasteurize pooled groups, so when it fails, organisms like bovine leucosis virus, Johne’s disease, Mycoplasma, and Staph. aureus are shared to the whole group. If you plan to pasteurize, be sure to monitor it weekly.

I said I would rather invest in a cuddle box first. Bill asked what that was. A cuddle box is an individual milking stall where we milk fresh cows immediately after calving with a clean milker. We then feed the calf within minutes, so the bacteria have no time to grow, winning the cow and calf colostrum race.

We also put the calf in front of the cow, stimulating letdown as she licks it off. We put 10 pounds of hay or TMR on top of the calf and the cow eats it while licking the calf. That 10 pounds of dry matter can be the most important feed the cow eats the whole lactation as it beats ketosis by eating at a very critical time.

A cuddle box and fast, simple colostrum management is a double barrel silver bullet. Consider these options for your farm if they are not already utilized.