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Good colostrum hygiene equals healthy calves

Kevin Ratka
Jose Lopez of Kaukauna collects colostrum for calves. It's important that this first milk is clean in order to achieve healthy calves.

On every dairy, achieving optimal calf health and performance starts with the colostrum management. Feeding high-quality colostrum is crucial to achieve adequate passive transfer. However, when focusing on colostrum quality, it is not only the amount of antibodies present in the colostrum that matters, but also the hygiene of the colostrum being fed. Colostrum needs to be clean to achieve healthy calves.

The concern with bacterial contamination in colostrum is that it not only leads to disease, but it also limits the calf’s ability to absorb antibodies. Multiple studies have shown bacteria bind up antibodies and interfere with passive absorption of colostral antibodies across the gut and into the bloodstream. High bacteria counts decrease transfer efficiency and can lead to failed passive transfer. 

Additionally, higher levels of bacteria expose newborn calves earlier to potential infectious agents, such as E. coli, Salmonella, or Mycoplasma, which can lead to diseases like severe scours, pneumonia, or septicemia. Exposure to other bacteria, such as Mycobacterium avium, can lead to Johne’s disease, a chronic infection with the potential to reduce productivity and cause clinical disease later in life. 

Key management areas to focus on to help reduce bacterial contamination of colostrum include:

The cow: Make sure the colostrum being collected is from healthy cows free of disease and has no signs of mastitis. Proper teat prep is necessary to ensure teats are clean and properly disinfected before collecting colostrum.

The equipment: Ensure all milking equipment and collection buckets are clean and properly sanitized. Since fresh cows are milked separately and not necessarily on a set schedule, establishing a cleaning cycle can be more of a challenge. All feeding equipment, such as bottles, nipples, pails, and esophageal feeders and tubes, should also be cleaned and sanitized after every calf.

It is important to make sure all equipment is free from any biofilm.  Just because it looks clean doesn’t always ensure it is. Using tools, such as an ATP meter, can help ensure no bacteria or biofilm build up are present.

Collection and storage of colostrum: Make sure you have a plan in place for how colostrum should be handled. Time is of the essence as bacteria will continue to replicate in warm colostrum. Feeding the colostrum immediately is best to reduce potential exposure. If you freeze extra colostrum, also do that as quickly as possible.  If you store it in the refrigerator, cool it rapidly. Putting colostrum in smaller containers to increase surface area will help it cool down quickly in the refrigerator. Colostrum should be stored for less than 24 hours in the refrigerator, unless a preservative, such as potassium sorbate, is used.

Heat-treating colostrum: This is an excellent tool to reduce bacteria levels in colostrum.  Heating the colostrum to 140 degrees F for 60 minutes will reduce bacteria counts, but it will not completely sterilize it. 

If you have concerns about bacterial levels in the colostrum or want to check whether protocols are being performed properly, you can have a colostrum culture done.  Common goals for evaluating colostrum are a total bacteria count less than 100,000 colony forming units (cfu) per milliliter and a coliform count less than 10,000 cfu per milliliter.  Talk with your Vita Plus consultant to learn more about colostrum cultures.

Putting the time and effort into collecting and feeding high-quality colostrum will not only help improve the health of your calves, but also improve the future performance and productivity of those animals in the herd.

Kevin Ratka

Dr. Kevin Ratka is a dairy specialist at Vita Plus