Calving season is upon us, and you want to do everything you can to help your newborns thrive and grow.

Gunn patrick
Extension Beef Specialist / Iowa State University Extension & Outreach

A critical first step in ensuring their overall health is to make sure they consume enough colostrum immediately following birth. Calves are born with no antibodies to fight dangerous organisms, and they rely on the immunoglobulin (mainly immunoglobulin G or IgG) in colostrum to provide immunity that will protect them in their first days and weeks of life.

Because beef calves remain in the pasture with their dam, it can be difficult to know how much colostrum has been nursed. If a calf isn’t up and nursing within two hours after birth, you should step in and help.

Timing is crucial because calves absorb the most antibodies from colostrum in the first few hours of life. Antibodies pass directly through the gut wall and into the bloodstream.

As the hours tick by, the gut wall begins to “close” and fewer antibodies can get through. By around 24 hours old, a calf can no longer absorb antibodies from colostrum.


Calves born under stressful conditions may be unable to get up and nurse. In cases such as difficult birth, a sick dam or harsh weather, bottle-feeding or tube-feeding the calf may be your only option.

Generally speaking, every new calf should receive a gallon of high-quality colostrum as soon as possible after birth. Depending on the size of the calf, this can be fed all at once or in 2 quarts within 2 hours of birth and an additional 2 quarts eight to 12 hours later.

New calf

If you don’t have stored colostrum on hand, you can turn to colostrum replacers and colostrum supplements to help ensure every calf gets the nutrition it needs.

The two things to consider in a commercial colostrum product are the amount of immunoglobulin (also called globulin protein) and the source of the IgG, which is typically either bovine colostrum or bovine serum.

The globulin protein from bovine serum-based products comes from whole blood collected from federally inspected meat-processing facilities. The raw material is spun in a centrifuge, separating the red blood cells from the plasma.

The plasma is then further separated and biologically active proteins are concentrated into an enriched globulin protein source called serum. This mixture is spray-dried to remove moisture, which results in a fine powder that closely resembles dried colostrum in texture, color and scent.

In addition to globulin protein, serum-based replacers and supplements also offer nutrients to calves. The products contain additional functional proteins, carbohydrates and fat for energy, plus vitamins and minerals.

Serum-based replacers and supplements mix well, perform consistently and work fast. Some of the first replacers and supplements on the market more than 20 years ago were serum-based, and beef producers count on them time and again because of their results and supporting research.

Serum-based replacer and supplement products are highly researched to demonstrate efficacy and support the market. Research data show clearly that serum-derived colostrum replacers are effective.

It’s a good idea to plan ahead for those times when calves are on the ground and problems could arise. Serum-based colostrum replacers and colostrum supplements are a good management tool to have on hand. Before you buy, make sure you know which type of product to use in a given situation:

  • Colostrum replacers contain 100 grams of globulin protein or more plus a full profile of fat, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. If the calf will not be getting any colostrum from mom, feed a colostrum replacer.

    Replacers should be used when colostrum is unavailable to the calf or if the calf did not get up to nurse.

  • Colostrum supplements typically contain 50 grams of globulin protein but usually do not contain a full nutritional profile. Supplements can be fed right after birth to help a struggling calf stand up to nurse.

They can also be fed to a calf that has nursed, but may need extra nutritional support, for instance, if the dam is thin or a heifer and you’re concerned about colostrum quantity or quality.

With cattle numbers at a historic low and calf prices at an all-time high, it’s just good business to protect your investment. Keeping quality colostrum replacers and colostrum supplements on hand will allow you to respond quickly when your calves are in trouble.

This investment will easily pay for itself by ensuring you have healthy, thriving calves.  end mark

TOP: Plan ahead for occasions when problems arise with new calves with quality colostrum, colostrum replacers and supplements.

BOTTOM: New calves need colostrum or effective replacers within the first moments of being able to stand. Photos courtesy of APC, Inc.