Colostrum – the first milk a calf receives from a cow after being born – is absolutely critical for the health of a newborn calf and even more so for calves with a traumatic delivery.
Colostrum is often referred to as “liquid gold” and for good reason. This milky substance is full of vitamins, minerals, fats, carbohydrates and proteins, providing the very best nutrition needed to help build the immune system in those first critical days and to give the calf the best start possible for a strong and healthy body. Of particular importance to the newborn calf are the absorbing antibodies or proteins within the colostrum. While the calf nurses his mom, these absorbing antibodies are entering his bloodstream and absorbed through the intestinal lining, immediately going to work in helping to build his immune system to help fight disease and infection.
A newborn calf’s intestinal lining is very thin at birth (called an “open gut”, allowing large molecules to enter) and starts to gradually thicken in the hours after birth, eventually closing altogether. The act of nursing increases the rate at which the gut starts to close. Therefore, it is extremely important for a newborn calf to get as much colostrum as possible in the first few hours after birth. Colostrum remains important past those first few critical hours, but the calf’s ability to absorb the antibodies into their gut significantly drops by hour 12, with the gut closing completely by hour 24.
While we hope for every newborn calf to get his colostrum directly from his mom, that is not always possible. In cases where a newborn calf is unable to nurse his mom or there are complicating factors (e.g., mother cow is very ill or dies, etc), you can used a powdered colostrum mix (available at farm stores like Tractor Supply) and bottle or tube-feed it to the newborn calf. These mixes aren’t ideal, but can be a live saver for a calf. If a calf makes it through its first few weeks of life, it begins developing a immune system that will replace these antibodies in fending off infection and disease, and hopefully promote a long, healthy and productive life.