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Colostrum is Crucial for New Born Calf Survival

08 February 2017
Type Media Article

By Anthony O'Connor, Teagasc Adviser, Galway/Clare Regional Unit

"A good start is half the battle"!

Aim to give your new born suckler calf a good start in life and win the battle for survival by ensuring that the calf suckles and receives adequate colostrum in the first 6 hours of life.

Fresh biestings or colostrum is a rich source of heat, energy, protein and antibodies. Without adequate colostrum, the new born calf is more vulnerable to infection, is more likely to develop disease and die in the pre and post weaning periods. The first feed of colostrum is the most important feed of the calf's lifetime so it is critical that every new-born calf gets an adequate amount.


The recommendation for new born calves is that they receive 3 litres of colostrum within the first hour after birth and a further 3 litres within 6 hours. If calf is unable to suckle, or is too weak or traumatised after a difficult calving to suckle on its own, it should be fed colostrum by means of a bucket with a teat or a stomach tube. An on-going study by Teagasc on numerous suckler farms has shown that 21% of young suckler calves have low levels of antibodies in their bloodstream, indicating that they did not receive enough colostrum at birth.  

Antibody Action:

Calves have no immunity against disease at birth.  They rely for protection on the antibodies of the cow, delivered via the colostrum until they are old enough to produce their own antibodies.  Antibodies in colostrum are large proteins that can only enter the blood from the intestine of the calf in the first 6 hours after the calf is born. This ability to absorb antibodies decreases by 50% after 6 hours of life and is gone by 24 hours. Therefore, the early feeding and an adequate amount of good quality colostrum is the first and most vital disease protection measure in the calf's life. Furthermore, vaccination against calf scours can only be effective via passive immunity if the calf consumes sufficient levels of colostrum soon after calving. 

Colostrum Quality:

Quality of colostrum tends to vary from cow to cow. Cows in better condition produce better quality colostrum. Antibody levels are lower in heifers than in mature suckler cows. The maximum level and potency of antibodies occurs after the 4th or 5th calving. Mastitis will lower colostrum quality and poor nutrition pre-calving will reduce colostrum quality and quantity. Beef cows may not produce 6 litres of milk in the first 6 hours but the good quality colostrum produced by them should make up for the lack of quantity.

Frozen Colostrum:

Have a supply of frozen colostrum on hand at the start of calving for emergencies. Milk some from early calving cows (avoid first calvers) or get some from a neighbouring dairy farmer. Store this in a deep freeze in 2l plastic milk containers It can be stored down to -25 degrees Celsius for up to a year without changing its quality. Frozen colostrum can be thawed safely by placing in a basin of warm water. Avoid thawing using very hot water or a microwave as this may damage immunoglobins in the colostrum.

Assisting Calves:

Weak or bruised calves unable to stand may need assistance to suckle or may have to be artificially fed. These weak calves will consume colostrum more readily from a bucket with a teat than from a stomach tube. Caution is urged if using a stomach tube as incorrect use may result in choking the calf. Even some healthy calves sometimes do not suckle without assistance.

Other Considerations:

  • Rub down cow's teats and check for dirt, cuts and abrasions before allowing calf to suckle. Calves are slow to suckle if cows have large teats or hanging udders.
  • If assisting a calf, try and make sure it gets colostrum from at least 2 teats.