Calf Colostrum: The Clock is Ticking

Kelsi Mayer, Filament

Focus on four key areas to help give calves a strong start.

Four Colostrum Tips - ChartWhether you raise 5, 50 or 500 calves, quality colostrum is vital to give calves a strong start. Calves are born with an immature immune system and have little to no immunity against diseases. That’s why they need to receive quality colostrum soon after birth.

Colostrum contains antibodies, known as immunoglobulins (such as IgG), which help protect calves against diseases. Compared to whole milk, colostrum has twice as much dry matter, three times as many minerals and five times as much protein. It is also higher in energy and vitamins. The high nutrient content in colostrum is especially important because newborn calves have low reserves of these nutrients.[1]

“Quality colostrum helps set calves up for long-term health, growth and productivity. The care and detail that go into delivering colostrum to newborn calves in their first hours of life is crucial to future performance,” says Julian (Skip) Olson, DVM, technical services manager for Milk Products.

Here are four areas to keep in mind for colostrum success:

1. Quality is key

 “While high-quality colostrum containing a large percentage of IgGs is usually thick and creamy, don’t rely on appearance alone to predict quality,” says Olson. “A Brix refractometer or a hydrometer based colostrum tester can help you quickly estimate colostrum quality.”

The Dairy Calf and Heifer Association Gold Standards recommend the following IgG levels:

  • Brix refractometer: 22 or greater for large breeds; 18 or greater for smaller breeds like Jerseys. A Brix value of 22 corresponds to about 50 milligrams per milliliter (mg/mL) or 50 grams/liter (g/L).
  • Colostrum tester (Colostrometer™): about 50 mg/mL if in the “green” zone. The instrument rises as colostrum cools and sinks in the colostrum as it becomes warmer.

For greatest accuracy, measure colostrum cooled to 72 degrees Fahrenheit. At lower temperatures, colostrum testers can overestimate levels; at higher temperatures, they can underestimate levels.

 2. Quantity matters too

 Within the first two hours of life, a calf should receive colostrum equal to 10 percent of its bodyweight. For example, a 90-pound calf should receive 4 quarts of colostrum, which weighs about 9 pounds.

“Ideally, after the first colostrum feeding, feed quality transition milk harvested up to 72 hours after calving – about six feedings,” says Olson. “While colostrum contains the highest concentration of beneficial factors, transition milk will continue to be higher in solids, fat, protein, vitamins and immunoglobulins than standard milk. After feeding transition milk, you can begin feeding milk replacer or whole milk.”

3. Timing is everything

Within 24 hours after birth, a calf’s gut begins to close making it difficult to absorb antibodies in colostrum. Studies have shown at six hours after birth calves absorb 66 percent of IgGs from colostrum. But, 36 hours after birth calves were only able to absorb 7 percent of IgGs.[2]

“This information shows how important it is to feed newborn calves colostrum as quickly as possible,” says Olson. “The first two hours is the ideal time window for calves to absorb antibodies. If this is not possible, aim for four hours.”

4. When there isn’t enough

When maternal colostrum isn’t high enough quality, or you don’t have enough of it, there are other options. In these situations, you can use frozen colostrum or colostrum replacer.

“It’s an emergency situation when you do not have the proper amount of colostrum for a newborn calf. Colostrum replacers can help if you don’t have access to quality frozen colostrum,” says Olson. “Colostrum replacers are a viable alternative to build the immune system of a calf. Keeping colostrum replacer on hand will help you stay prepared for the arrival of newborn calves.”

Look for colostrum replacers made from bovine colostrum, like Sav-A-Caf® colostrum replacer.

“Your role in helping protect calves from disease by properly feeding colostrum is important,” says Olson. “Pay close attention to the details to help calves build immunity and get off to a healthy start.”

Learn more about calf nutrition at or like My Farm Journey on Facebook.

Milk Products, based in Chilton, Wis., manufacturers high-quality animal milk replacers and young animal health products. Using its innovative manufacturing technology, Milk Products produces over 700 unique animal nutrition products for numerous independent feed manufacturers, wholesale distributors, and large retail chains. Our customers choose whether these products are sold under their private label brand, or under the Sav-A-Caf® brand which is manufactured and marketed by Milk Products.


[1] Heinrichs A, Jones C. 2003. Feeding the Newborn Dairy Calf. The Pennsylvania State University.

[2] Ag-Info Centre: The Importance of Colostrum for Calves. 2004. [accessed 2017 Aug 17].$department/deptdocs.nsf/all/faq8021