Three Ways to Maximize Colostrum Quality on Your Dairy

Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health USA, Inc.

Feeding high quality colostrum is the first step in ensuring your calves are set up for success

Young dairy calf

A nationwide evaluation of colostrum on dairy farms in the U.S. showed that 60% of maternal colostrum fed to newborn dairy calves is inadequate, causing many calves to be at risk of failure of passive transfer.1

When calves don’t receive enough high-quality colostral antibodies, they do not acquire necessary protection against the most common viral and bacterial infections found within their environment. They’re also more likely to develop scours or pneumonia, and are at greater risk of death.

“Calves are basically born immunocompromised, and quality colostrum gives their immune systems a critical head start,” said Curt Vlietstra, DVM, Boehringer Ingelheim. “Numerous studies show that the quality of colostrum received at birth can influence average daily gains, disease incidence, and even first lactation milk production.”2,3

High quality colostrum is typically defined as having an immunoglobulin (IgG) concentration greater than 50 mg/mL, but this number can vary depending on the breed you’re raising. To ensure you’re feeding the highest quality colostrum possible, Dr. Vlietstra provides three recommendations:

Implement solid dry cow protocols 

Colostrum quality starts with healthy cows. While the health of the calf starts at conception, the last 60 days are considered the most crucial for its development. During that time, proper nutrition, ensuring cow comfort and reducing stress will help you have a much healthier cow and calf.

Killed vaccines, safely administered at the beginning of the dry cow period, are another way to keep the dam healthy and enhance antibody levels found in colostrum.4 Cows vaccinated during the dry period are also more likely to enter the next lactation with a robust immune system to fight off infectious disease threats.

“The most inexpensive way to provide good immunity to a newborn calf is to provide good immunity to the dry cow,” said Dr. Vlietstra. “Bagged colostrum isn’t bad, but the good stuff isn’t cheap. You could give five dollars’ worth of vaccines to a cow or heifer during the dry period, or spend thirty dollars, or more, on a bag of colostrum for a calf down the road.”

Your local veterinarian can help you evaluate vaccination options and develop cost-effective dry cow management protocols for your herd.

Don’t overlook heifers 

Some producers don’t use colostrum from first-calf heifers because of the common perception that it’s of lower quality. This can be a costly practice, as rejecting all colostrum from heifers means producers need to replace colostrum for approximately 40% of calves born.5

“It’s often assumed that heifers haven’t been exposed to as many bugs as cows, and if her colostrum looks different, that it may be of lower quality,” said Dr. Vlietstra. “However, farms that test colostrum find that many heifers have high-quality colostrum as well.” 

Test colostrum

Colostrum can be easily collected and evaluated by using on-farm measurement tools such as a colostrometer or refractometer. Both of these tools are designed to prevent failure of passive transfer by ensuring that the colostrum fed is high quality. Dr. Vlietstra recommends having a few bags of replacer on-hand to make up for any colostrum that is tested and deemed inadequate.

Testing colostrum can also help you determine factors that correlate to higher quality colostrum on your farm. These insights allow producers to adjust management practices to ensure cows provide the highest quality colostrum they are capable of.

“Ideally, every batch of colostrum would be tested, and only good colostrum would be fed,” said Dr. Vlietstra. “The tools used to measure colostrum aren’t free, but the value of knowing the quality of colostrum being fed significantly outweighs the costs.”



Finally, Dr. Vlietstra encourages producers to consult their local veterinarian and nutritionist to determine measurements for good, fair and poor-quality colostrum on their farm. These experts can also help you identify and implement strategic dry cow protocols to protect the health of cows and their future calves.


1 Morrill KM, et al. Nationwide evaluation of quality and composition of colostrum on dairy farms in the United States. J. Dairy Sci, 95(7), 3997-4005.

2 Puppel, K., Gołębiewski, M., Grodkowski, et al. (2019). Composition and Factors Affecting Quality of Bovine Colostrum: A Review. Animals : an open access journal from MDPI, 9(12), 1070. doi:10.3390/ani9121070

3 Arnold M. Colostrum management for dairy calves. University of Kentucky, department of animal and food sciences. Available at: Accessed February 10, 2020.



4 Smith B, Rieger R, Dickens C, et al. Anti-bovine herpesvirus and anti-bovine viral diarrhea virus antibody responses in pregnant Holstein dairy cattle following administration of a multivalent killed virus vaccine. Am J Vet Res. 2015;76(10):913-20.  

5 Durst Phil. Why check colostrum quality? Michigan State University Extension. 2017. Available at: Accessed February 10, 2020.

Boehringer Ingelheim’s Animal Health Business has a significant presence in the United States with more than 3,000 employees in places that include Georgia, Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, New Jersey and Puerto Rico. To learn more, visit,

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