In this extended version of our February 2021 newsletter article, Torch Vet Jenny Schmidt BVSc MRCVS takes a detailed look at colostrum, and how to choose the best option if a powdered version is required.
Real colostrum is a superfood rich in fats, protein and growth factors. Colostrum replacer should be as close as possible to the real thing. Calves and lambs depend on the antibodies they get in the colostrum to fight disease for the first few months of life.
Colostrum also provides fat to burn for warmth. A dose of poor quality artificial colostrum will make a lamb/calf feel full, meaning they won’t suckle as much of the dam’s colostrum. This can result in overall reduced intake of antibodies and fat, and increased susceptibility to hypothermia and neonatal infections.
We can see from figure 1 that no powdered colostrum comes close to ewe colostrum’s 50 g/L antibody level. Some are very poor indeed. Many of the inexpensive colostrum powders have their protein levels bumped up with whey or egg protein powder. This is no substitute for actual antibodies.
Figure 2 shows the ingredient lists of 2 colostrum powders. They are available for both lambs and calves. Looking at the ingredients of your colostrum powder can give an indication of quality. They are listed by order of inclusion. We can see that product A is made mostly from real colostrum. Product B is mainly whey protein.For lambs, product A comes in a 500g pot, costing £30. Product B comes in 10 sachets, costing £26. Product B is seen as the more affordable product. Yet it is far more expensive per dose and per gram of antibody it delivers. It is also very lacking in fat to keep the lamb warm.
How much total colostrum does a newborn need? For newborns not receiving any colostrum from their dam, the rule of thumb is 10% of body weight within the first 8-12 hours. Give half the dose in the first 1-2 hours after birth, followed by a second dose 4-6 hours later.
•A 4kg lamb needs 400ml
•A 40kg calf should have 4 litres.
If we are just ‘topping up’ at risk animals, half of this is likely to be sufficient. Absorption of antibody depends on two main factors:
1) The age of the newborn: their ability to properly absorb the antibody molecule starts to fall after the first meal, dwindling to zero by 24 hours of age.
2) The concentration of antibodies: the stronger the solution, the better the absorption. The second point tells us that doubling the amount given of a cheap colostrum still doesn’t do the same job as a dose of the real thing (figure 4). Making the powder mix too strong also risks dehydrating the lamb/calf by causing an osmotic scour. Every effort should be made to top up the lamb/calf with real colostrum.
What is the best way to supplement?
Gold standard: supplement at risk animals with real colostrum, sucked from a teat. Suckling ensures the colostrum ends up in the right part of the stomach for digestion. The quality of colostrum is highest in the first 12-24 hours, so select a donor who has only just given birth.
Real world: Stomach tube lambs with 150-200 mls of colostrum, calves with 1.5-2 litres.
If you are using powdered, pay for a good quality product. Filling up the stomach with a low quality product will mean they suckle less of the real thing from the dam. If you can use real colostrum, do so.
Why is colostrum better at preventing watery mouth/joint ill/scours than antibiotics?
Protection from colostrum lasts up to 12 weeks of age. Protection from antibiotics lasts a few days at most. Antibiotic injections will prevent the newborn’s gut being colonised by healthy bacteria. In animals treated with antibiotics at birth, only resistant bacteria will move into the gut. Giving antibiotics to newborns is no substitute for the protection provided by a good dose of colostrum.
What can prevent adequate colostrum intakes?
- Difficult births
- For the newborn: reduced suck reflex due to stress, swollen tongues
- For the dam: stress and pain ➔ poor milk let down, mismothering
- Dopey or weak newborns: many causes including infections, deficiencies, breed variation, low birth weights, oxygen starvation during birth
- Multiple births – first gets the lion’s share
- Maidens: poorer quality colostrum, mismothering
- Inadequate dam nutrition ➔ poor colostrum production
Is cow colostrum any good for lambs?
Cow colostrum will have lower fat levels than ewe colostrum, but it is likely still better than powdered colostrum. If it comes from cows on the same farm, it will give better protection against the local range of bugs. Sometimes cow colostrum will contain antibodies which attack lambs’ red blood cells and cause anaemia. This risk is low, and even lower with pooled colostrum. But be sure it comes from low risk cows with regard to Johne’s Disease (consult your vet).
How long can colostrum be stored?
Harvested colostrum will keep up to 1 week in the fridge. It lasts a year or more in the freezer at -20 deg C. If you thaw it, it shouldn’t be re-frozen. Thaw gently in a water bath no hotter than 50 deg C: defrosting in a microwave will cook the antibody, making it useless.
Ewes: if you scan, you can harvest colostrum from well-fed single bearing ewes. Freeze it in 150-200ml doses or in ice cube trays for use next year.
AHDB’s excellent web page on colostrum management for lambs can be found here.