Colostrum, The Right Start for Beef Calves

by Allan Chestnut, Ph.D.,
Vigortone Technical Service Nutritionist

The newborn calf’s blood is devoid of antibodies for disease protection, and it is not able to produce significant quantities of antibodies until several weeks of age. Therefore, the young calf is totally dependent on maternal antibodies. Maternal antibodies can be transferred to the calf via colostrum only within the first 24 hours after birth.

When a calf is born, it has the ability to absorb large protein molecules across the intestinal wall into the blood system. However, the intestinal wall rapidly changes after birth so the calf’s ability to absorb intact Ig drops to almost zero by 24 hours after birth. Therefore, it is critical for the calf to consume colostrum as soon as possible after birth. The concentration of IgG circulating in a calf’s blood system to protect it from disease the first few weeks of life is dependent on these factors:

  • the concentration of IgG in colostrum
  • the amount of colostrum consumed
  • how quickly after birth the colostrum is consumed.

The generally accepted recommendation for beef calves is to consume good quality colostrum within two hours after birth.

How Much IgG Does A Calf Need?

A blood serum concentration of 10 g IgG/L serum is considered minimal for disease protection. Failure of Passive Transfer (FPT) is the term used to define the condition of calves with less than 10 g IgG/L serum. To avoid FPT an average size calf must consume 100 g of IgG within a few hours after birth. This is based on the assumption that an 88 pound calf’s body contains 3.5 L of serum, and 35% of the IgG ingested is absorbed across the intestinal wall.

Consequences Of FPT

Research at the Clay Center, Nebraska, USDA experiment station compared beef calves with adequate serum IgG concentrations to those with inadequate passive immunity. Calves with FPT were 6.4 times more likely to be sick within the first 4 weeks of life and 5.4 times more likely to die before weaning. Also, weaning weights of calves with FPT were 35 pounds less than calves with adequate passive immunity.

Reasons For FPT

When a calf is not able to nurse a healthy cow within two hours after birth, it will likely experience FPT. This may be because the cow died during parturition, was slow in recovering from parturition due to injury/illness, or refused to allow the calf to nurse. Heifers generally have a lower IgG content in their colostrum and their calves also are more likely to experience FPT, even if they nurse. In these situations providing a colostrum replacement to the calf can reap profitable returns later.

Selecting A Colostrum Replacement

Products sold as colostrum replacements will contain at least 100 g of IgG/dose. Less expensive colostrum supplements are also sold, but these products contain only 30 to 50 g IgG/dose. The source of IgG in colostrum replacements may be from dried bovine colostrum, extracted from blood serum, or extracted from whey. The advantage of dried bovine colostrum is that it contains other antimicrobial compounds and growth factors in addition to IgG. Some colostrum products also contain probiotics such as lactic acid bacteria (LAB). While LAB may be beneficial to the intestinal health of older calves, these bacteria will be absorbed into the bloodstream of newborn calves along with the other large protein molecules. It is not desirable to have LAB absorbed into the calf’s blood system.

Rite Start Complete

Vigortone is proud to offer Rite Start Complete. Rite Start Complete is a colostrum replacement consisting of dried bovine colostrum containing a minimum of 100 g IgG/dose. Rite Start Complete colostrum is collected only from carefully chosen dairies and is processed under the same strict conditions as product used for human consumption. The contents of a 1 pound packet of Rite Start Complete dissolved in 2 quarts of warm water and given to a newborn calf will insure adequate passive immunity for the calf to have a healthy and profitable start in life.

A brochure on Rite Start Complete for beef calves is now available through Vigortone Customer Service at 1-800-553-4900.

This article was published in the January 2005 edition of Vigortone's Bunk, Bull & Business newsletter.For more information, please call us at 1-800-553-1712 or email us at

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