When should colostrum replacement products be used for newborn calves?

By Richard Randle, DVM

We all recognize that it’s crucial that newborn calves get off to a good start. One of the most important things that needs to happen at birth is the adequate consumption of high-quality colostrum by the newborn calf.
newborn calf

Ideally, we like to see a vigorous calf stand and nurse within two hours of birth, and repeatedly nurse by the time it’s 12 hours old.

There are situations, however, that can impact the quality and quantity of colostrum available to newborn calves. In these situations, colostrum replacement products may need to be considered. Such situations include:

  • Difficult calving: Calves that experience difficult births often are slow to stand and nurse. Research has shown that calves born with no assistance stood and nursed within 40 minutes after birth. They also had a higher immunoglobulin concentration at 24 hours than calves that required assistance. Calves requiring assistance took more than an hour to stand and had a significantly lower immunoglobulin concentration.
  • Severe weather conditions: Harsh winter weather conditions can cause cold stress. Calves that experience cold stress may be less likely to get up and nurse. Cold-stressed cows also have reduced potential of providing high-quality colostrum.

  • Thin cows: Nutrition plays a direct role in the production of colostrum. Undernourished cows may not have received enough energy, protein, minerals, and vitamins during the gestation period; therefore, the ability to produce quality colostrum is reduced. As body condition decreases, so does the amount and concentration of immunoglobulins in colostrum.
  • First-calf heifers: Colostrum quality and quantity is usually lower in first-calf heifers. There is also a higher likelihood that first-calf heifers may lack good “mothering instinct” and will not allow the calf to immediately suckle — or may reject the calf altogether. 

Colostrum replacement products

There are a number of colostrum replacement products commercially available today. Care should be taken during selection to ensure a replacement is selected and not a supplement. Although similar, replacements have higher concentrations of immunoglobulins (Ig), specifically IgG, than supplements and are intended to serve as the sole source when fresh colostrum is not available.

There are other nutrients such as sugars, fats, vitamins, and minerals in replacements; however, there can be variability in the quality and digestibility of products based on the source of these nutrients and the method of processing.

Manufacturer’s instructions should be carefully read and followed since products may vary in how they are mixed and the number of recommended feedings.

Consult with your clients to help them make a more informed colostrum replacement purchasing decision best suited to their operations. This decision is important because they only get one chance to start a calf off right.

For further reference: “Care of the Newborn Calf: Colostrum Management” webinar at beef.unl.edu/newborn-calf-colostrummanagement.


Colostrum replacer vs supplement

  • A colostrum replacer is designed to be fed as the calf’s only source of colostrum in the event that no high-quality colostrum is available.
  • A colostrum supplement is designed to boost the quality of natural colostrum.

When choosing a colostrum product, ask these questions:

  • Is this product a true colostrum replacement or is it a colostrum supplement?
  • Is the product made from real bovine colostrum or is it made from blood serum?
  • Is the product labeled with a claim for Bovine IgG or just globulin proteins?
  • Is the product licensed by USDA as a replacement?

Consider an alternative colostrum product in these scenarios:

  • Non-vigorous calves
  • Prolonged calvings
  • Dystocias (assisted deliveries)
  • Calving injuries
  • Poor maternal bonding
beef protocol graphic