"No Bugs Please" — How to Feed Clean Colostrum to Baby Calves

Published on Fri, 11/18/2016 - 11:13am

Sandra Godden, University of Minnesota / Extension

The neonatal calf relies on the passive absorption of 150 to 200 g of colostral immunoglobulins (Ig) within the first few hours after birth to provide protection against infectious disease challenge early in life. Despite its health and nutritional benefits for the calf, colostrum is a potential early source of exposure to microbial pathogens. Microorganisms may be present in colostrum from multiple sources including secretion from the mammary gland, contamination during milking, storage or feeding, or by bacterial proliferation in stored colostrum. Salmonella spp., Mycobacterium avium subsp. paratuberculosis (MAP or Johne's Disease), Mycoplasma spp., and Bovine Leukemia Virus are just a few of the pathogens that may be isolated from colostrum. In addition, studies have reported that high concentrations of bacteria in colostrum may be associated with decreased IgG absorption, thereby contributing to failure of passive transfer. As such, experts have recommended that a goal should be to harvest and feed colostrum with fewer than 100,000 cfu/ml total plate count.

A first step in investigating the cleanliness of your colostrum is to submit frozen samples to a laboratory that will do multiple dilutions to give you an actual plate count (cfu/mL). If 80% (4 of 5) or more of your samples come back with results of a Total Plate Count exceeding 100,000 cfu/mL or a Total Coliform Count exceeding 10,000 cfu/mL, then you have an opportunity to improve the cleanliness of your colostrum. Routine practices that all producers should adopt in trying to harvest and feed clean colostrum include the following:

  1. Remove the calf from the dam within 30 to 60 minutes of calving and before nursing: A calf is likely to eat pathogens from contaminated teat skin of the dam while trying to nurse.
  2. Properly clean and disinfect the udder prior to harvesting first milking colostrum: Use the same udder prep procedures as you do your lactating cows.
  3. If you know the dam has tested positive or is suspected of having a disease that can be transmitted through colostrum (e.g. Johne's disease or Mycoplasma spp.), then do not feed her colostrum to the calf. In such cases, feed previously stored (e.g. refrigerated or frozen) colostrum from healthy cows or feed a colostrum replacement (CR) product.
  4. Do not pool raw colostrum. Use the 'one cow to one calf' rule. This way, if a cow is subclinically infected without you knowing it, you will limit the risk of exposure to only one calf instead of multiple calves.
  5. Minimize colostrum contamination from dirty equipment: This requires proper cleaning and sanitizing of the milking bucket, storage buckets or bottles, feeding bottles, and nipples and/or esophageal tube attachments. Cleaning and sanitizing should follow the same basic steps as for your parlor including: i) warm water rinse, ii) hot water wash with detergent or bleach while scrubbing well with a brush, iii) hot water rinse with acid, and iv) inverting the equipment to drain and dry. Many producers avoid contaminated storage equipment by using disposable storage bags such as The Perfect Udder® Colostrum Management System, developed by Dairy Tech, Inc.® (Greeley, CO) whereby fresh colostrum is dispensed into 2, 3 or 4 quart single-use disposable bags.
  6. If storing colostrum, refrigerate or freeze it as quickly as possible to prevent bacterial proliferation. If refrigerating, aim to feed it within 2 days of collection.

Two additional techniques or tools that may be useful on some farms include the use of colostrum replacement products and heat-treating colostrum. The selection and use of colostrum replacement products has been reviewed in a previous Dairy Star article (http://z.umn.edu/colrep). Producers should feed 150 to 200 g of IgG from a CR and are encouraged to select a CR product that has demonstrated efficacy in independently conducted controlled field studies.

Heat-treatment (HT) is one additional approach to reduce microbial contamination in colostrum. Briefly, HT at 140° F for 60 minutes eliminates important pathogens including Mycoplasma bovis, Escherichia coli, and Salmonella spp., and significantly reduces MAP, total bacteria counts and total coliform counts in colostrum, while maintaining colostrum IgG concentrations and nutrient composition. Research at the University of Minnesota reports that calves fed HT colostrum experienced short-term benefits including improved passive transfer of IgG and reduced illness (particularly reduced scours) in the preweaning period. However, thus far we have found no benefit of feeding HT colostrum on longer-term outcomes including risk for transmission of Johne's disease, milk production in the first and second lactation, and longevity within the herd. Research is continuing to investigate if we can further improve the process used to HT colostrum. A factsheet describing current recommendations for management and monitoring of colostrum HT systems can be found at the website for the University of Minnesota Laboratory for Udder Health.

In summary, producers should strive to reduce the level of bacterial contamination in colostrum fed to newborn calves. This may be achieved through a variety of management strategies including discarding colostrum from known infected cows, not feeding pooled raw colostrum, proper udder preparation prior to colostrum harvest, proper cleaning and sanitation of all colostrum milking, storage or feeding equipment, rapid chilling or freezing of stored colostrum, the use of preservatives, feeding commercial colostrum replacement products and heat-treatment of colostrum.