Colostrum is that “liquid gold” that gets newborn babies off to a good start. Colostrum is the first milk that a cow, ewe or doe produces after birth. It is thick and yellowish and rich in energy, protein, vitamins and minerals. But its most important role is protecting the newborn from potential disease and infection. At birth, newborns don’t have any of their own antibodies against infectious organisms in the environment. Without the maternal antibodies in colostrum, they can become weak and die.
Usually newborns get all the colostrum they need simply by nursing. But what if that’s not possible? Sometimes there’s a problem with the mom or the baby. Sometimes, we don’t want newborns to nurse because we’re trying to prevent disease transmission. That was my situation after two goats in my research herd were diagnosed with Johnes disease. Because we couldn’t be sure at the time that our 35 pregnant does were not infected, kids could not nurse, and I had to find a way to give them the colostrum they need. If you find yourself in a similar situation, here are some tips to get your newborn the colostrum it needs. (Thanks to Troy Walz, University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Jennifer Bentley, Iowa State University, for their contributions to this article.)
Feed Colostrum as Soon as Possible
The antibodies (immunoglobulins) in colostrum are large proteins. Newborns have openings in their small intestines that can accomodate absorbing these large proteins, but these openings close soon after birth. That means newborns should receive a good dose of colostrum within four hours of birth.
Calves need about two quarts of colostrum (or at least five percent of the calf’s body weight) within four hours of birth – ideally within 30 minutes – and one gallon within 12 hours.
Kids and Lambs should receive half their colostrum in the first four hours after birth and their total colostrum in the first 24 hours. They need 10% of their body weight in colostrum. So, a 10 pound lamb or kid would need about 16 ounces. I drank a lot of Diet Coke at the time, and always had a ready supply of 16 ounce bottles. I could mix the colostrum in the bottle, pop on a nipple, and feed the kid. This made it easy to track how much colostrum each kid had gotten.
Feed colostrum at body temperature: 101-103 F.
Colostrum from fresh females in your own herd is best because it has the antibodies necessary for your farm/ranch. If disease is not an issue, you can milk the mother or other fresh females for colostrum. Otherwise, you can purchase colostrum replacer. I used powdered bovine colostrum replacer for my kids. We weren’t sure at the time that it would work, but it was our only option. I’ve since read research that indicates that this replacer works very well for both kids and lambs and does provide them the antibodies they need. The only adjustment necessary is an increase in the amount fed. Because cow’s milk is not as nutritious as goat’s milk, you’ll need to feed about 1/3 more replacer.
Storing and Using Fresh Colostrum
Due to the importance of colostrum it’s always good to have a little extra on hand. For feeding calves, Troy Walz recommends freezing colostrum in 1 gallon Ziploc freezer bags. Fill them half full (2 quarts) and squeeze the air out before sealing. Bags lay flat in your freezer giving you more room for storage. When needed, take a bag out and put in a sink of hot water. It thaws and warms up very rapidly and it’s a ready measured feeding. For lambs and kids you can use quart size bags, filling them half full will give you the 16 ounces you need for a 10 pound baby. Colostrum can be stored for a year, so be sure to write a date on the bags.
Do not thaw colostrum in boiling water, or in the microwave. Both will kill the majority of the antibodies, making the colostrum less valuable. A warm water bath will ensure that antibodies are intact.
Heat-Treating Colostrum to Reduce Disease Spread
Colostrum can be heat-treated to eliminate pathogens like CAE ((Caprine Arthritic Encephalitis), Mycoplasma, Caseous Lymphadenitis, and Johnes. To do this, place colostrum in a double boiler or a water bath, and heat it to between 133 and 139 degrees F and hold it there for one hour to inactivate the virus. Be sure that you have a very accurate thermometer. If heated higher than 140 F beneficial antibodies will be reduced. In addition colostrum heated to 140 F or higher becomes pudding-like, making it difficult to feed.
Here’s more on how I raised 60 goat kids by hand, including an early weaning mixture that made the job easier.
And here’s an excellent piece from Bill Fosher on saving hypothermic lambs.