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March 7, 2005

Colostrum is Vital Food for Newborn Calves

Colostrum intake is critical for the newborn calf, says Greg Lardy, a North Dakota State University Extension Service beef cattle specialist.

“At birth, a calf's immune system is not fully developed,” he says. “The calf must rely on colostrum from the cow until its own immune system is totally functional (about 1 to 2 months of age).”

Colostrum contains antibodies or immunoglobulins necessary to provide the calf with protection from disease.

For colostrum to be most effective, Lardy recommends the calf receive 1 quart within six hours after birth and a total of 2 to 3 quarts within 12 hours of birth. After that time, the calf’s gut begins to "close" and absorbing the antibodies in colostrum becomes more difficult. At six hours after birth, calves absorb 66 percent of the immunoglobulins in colostrum, but at 36 hours after birth they are able to absorb only 7 percent of immunoglobulins.

Colostrum contains 22 percent solids, compared with 12 percent solids in normal whole cow's milk. Much of the extra solid material in colostrum is immunoglobulin, but colostrum also is an important source of protein (casein), sugar (lactose), fat, and vitamins A and E.

Breed type and cow age affect the amount of colostrum a cow produces, Lardy says. Dairy breeds produce more than beef breeds and mature cows produce more than heifers. Cows on higher planes of nutrition also produce more colostrum than cows on a low plane.

Calves that experience a difficult or prolonged birth tend to take longer to stand and nurse, resulting in a weak calf that lacks the proper immunoglobulin protection necessary to fend off disease threats. These calves may need to be tube fed colostrum or colostrum substitutes, Lardy says.

Handling and storing colostrum

Some cows don't produce an adequate amount of colostrum. That means producers sometimes have to use colostrum from other cows or stored colostrum to ensure that each calf receives an adequate amount. For optimum results, colostrum should be collected from cows within 24 hours of calving and fed fresh. Colostrum also can be collected at calving, stored frozen and used at a later date.

Lardy suggests that to make storing and thawing easier, store colostrum in Ziploc bags or Serving Savers containers. The bags or containers will store flat in the freezer and producers can use a size that makes thawing individual "servings" (1 or 2 quarts) of colostrum easier. Colostrum should not be thawed and refrozen.

Antibodies and immunoglobulins in colostrum are protein. Correct thawing is important to prevent colostrum from being damaged. It should be thawed slowly, either in a microwave or warm water. Lardy suggests these methods:

  • Place frozen colostrum and its container in warm water (110 F) and stir every five minutes. The colostrum should be warmed to 104 to 110 F.
  • Thaw colostrum in a microwave oven. Set the oven at no more than 60 percent power for gentle thawing. Agitate or stir the colostrum frequently to assure even thawing and warming. This is important since many microwaves do not heat material evenly. Warm the colostrum to 104 F.

How much colostrum does a calf need?

As a general rule of thumb, a calf should receive 5 percent to 6 percent of its body weight as colostrum within the first six hours of life. That same amount should be fed again when the calf is about 12 hours old. Colostrum weighs approximately 8 pounds per gallon. For an 80-pound calf, this equates to approximately 2 quarts (4 pounds) of colostrum per feeding.

The Johne's disease risk

Johne's disease (Myobacterium paratuberculosis) can be spread to herds through infected colostrum. Producers using colostrum from another cow as a supplement should be sure the cow from which they get it is free of the disease.

“Proper colostral management is essential to the health of newborn calves,” Lardy says. “Making sure calves get adequate colostrum will improve health and ensure the calf gets off to a proper start in life.”


Source: Greg Lardy, (701) 231-7660,
Editor: Ellen Crawford, (701) 231-5391,



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