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Benefits of feeding colostrum and transition milk

October 26, 2020

On dairy farms heifer rearing is the second largest annual expense after concentrates, accounting for almost 20% of production costs, according to Dr Alastair Boyle, Dairying Technologist with the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE).  This is a considerable investment and it is important to examine the heifer rearing period, to consider if any management practices can be changed to improve heifer rearing efficiency and future lactation performance. The key periods of heifer rearing are:

  • birth to weaning
  • weaning to conception
  • conception to calving

These key periods of heifer rearing will be explored during a series of Calf 2020 webinars starting on Thursday 19th November at 8.00pm and continuing for three consecutive weeks until Thursday 3rd December. Full details of the webinars and how to join are available here.

In recent years, numerous calf research studies have focussed on the importance and benefits of the calf receiving its 1st colostrum feed within two hours of birth. The reasons for this have been well documented. As the calf is born with no natural immunity, it requires the passive transfer of immunoglobulins, (IgG’s), from the dams’ colostrum to acquire immunity from disease. Indeed, from these research programmes a clear message has been derived and communicated to dairy farmers. This message revolves around four key pillars in relation to colostrum feeding, these being: quantity fed, quickly, quality and the hygiene of collection and feeding utensils. Within the CAFRE Dairy Centre, the design of the calving pens allows colostrum to be harvested quickly and safely from the post calving cow using a mobile milking machine, with the calf receiving its first feed of colostrum (3.0- 3.5 litres) as soon as possible after birth.  

As previously highlighted, much focus has been on the calf receiving its 1st feed of colostrum as soon as possible post birth. After the calf receives one or two feeds of colostrum, it is normally transitioned onto whole milk or milk replacer. Milk harvested at the 1st milking (colostrum) is highest in quality, i.e. total solids, immunoglobulin % and IGF-1. However, although quality declines at the 2nd and 3rd milking, (often called transition milk), there still appears to be a reasonable quantity of these constituents in transition milk, which the calf may continue to benefit from, if it receives them. CAFRE Dairying Technologist Dr Alastair Boyle said, “researchers are now asking the question, what are the health benefits in feeding transition milk to calves?” Current evidence suggests that health benefits are derived from the continued feeding of colostrum/transition milk to calves in the first few days of life. These benefits appear to primarily aid the calf’s digestive development and calf health. This is a feed which all farmers have access to in post-calved cows and where practically feasible, should be fed to calves during the first days of life. 

Transition milk being placed in the Coloquick for heating

Within the CAFRE dairy herd, the aim is to harvest 20 litres from the post calving cow at the 1st to 3rd milking. This feed is then stored in 2 litre bottles and refrigerated. Over the next five days the calf receives their dam’s milk, re-heated and fed at a rate of 4 litres per day in two feeds. This practice ensures that the calf can avail of the maximum amount of nutrients in this nutritious feed source, which is important for digestive development and aids calf health.

If this practice is to be implemented on farm, it is important to have a fridge of adequate size, suitable sealable containers which can be sterilised, a labelling system for each calf’s milk and an easy method to re-heat the transition milk before feeding.

For further information on feeding colostrum and transition milk to calves, don’t forget to join in the forthcoming webinars. Full details of the webinars are found here.