Healthy cows to healthy humans: Colostrum is our liquid gold

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This spring, we were fortunate to host the pre-conference tour for the Dairy Calf and Heifer Association’s annual meeting. We always enjoy tours, especially with others directly involved in the dairy industry. Their questions are an excellent reminder to pause and evaluate whether the protocols we have implemented continue to be relevant to our dairy’s current goals and opportunities. Oftentimes, as dairy men and women, we become so busy with the completion of the day’s tasks that we trudge along, worrying more about getting them done than if what we are doing is appropriate for our dairy’s needs.

One aspect of our successful calf program that generated much interest during the tour was colostrum management. At NexGen Dairy, colostrum is liquid gold. It is one of the foundations of our calf program.

We must remember that during pregnancy, the placenta of the cow does not allow for the transfer of many of the immune factors from the dam to the calf. Therefore, the calf needs to receive many of the major components of its immunity from colostrum after birth. Receiving quality colostrum will directly affect the calf’s ability to grow, thrive and fight off disease throughout its lifetime. This information also reminds us we can further enhance a calf health program by vaccinating cows before the period when they develop colostrum with a scour-focused vaccine.

A few of the keys to our colostrum program are collecting clean colostrum from vaccinated dams within several hours of giving birth. We test each collection for quality using a digital handheld Brix refractometer. Only colostrum that tests above a Brix of 22.5% is kept to be fed as first-feeding colostrum. Anything lower is added to our batch pasteurizer and fed with our waste milk to all other calves. Finally, after testing, all colostrum is loaded into individual bags for pasteurization in a specific colostrum pasteurizer before feeding. Every calf receives 1 gallon of tested and pasteurized colostrum within one hour of birth.

None of those management practices are new. However, what is new is the continual discovery of highly valuable compounds in bovine colostrum that make it as valuable as gold. Colostrum contains many different proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins (A, D, E and B), minerals (calcium, copper, iron, zinc, magnesium, manganese and phosphorus), and also bioactive compounds and antimicrobial factors.               These bioactive factors are exciting in that they work in interesting avenues, from acting as prebiotics and helping beneficial bacteria in the gut flourish to competing for binding sites along the gut lining with disease-causing organisms. They can aid iron absorption, activate the immune system and are essential to maintain a healthy gut lining. These are just a minuscule amount of the known benefits. Discoveries to new compounds and their functions are continuing to be made.

The other thing about gold is that once it’s discovered, it’s hard to keep it a secret. Our liquid gold is no different. Lately, an increasing interest in bovine colostrum for human use has arisen. Many dairies, including ours, are selling extra colostrum for further processing into human health products. Other dairies are further capturing the human market for colostrum directly, such as Royal Dairy in Washington. Royal Dairy utilizes colostrum to make Nurst, a skin cream that uses properties in bovine colostrum to treat skin conditions such as eczema. In humans, colostrum from our cows has been found to boost immune function, enhance various measures of athletic performance, enhance muscle growth, reduce inflammation, and strengthen gut health and integrity. We can directly testify to the effects of bovine colostrum supplementation on gut health. This past winter, a physician recommended an IgG product to alleviate symptoms of digestive distress. We were pleasantly surprised to discover the source of the supplement was bovine colostrum.

Finally, we’d like to share a few on-farm tips for colostrum use. Because it is so imperative that calves receive enough quality colostrum, keep some in the freezer to have on hand in an emergency. However, the quality decreases after being frozen for a few months. Also, during those times when calves are battling scours, freeze ice cubes of colostrum from vaccinated cows and toss a few cubes in the calf’s milk to provide an added boost of immunity.  

    Megan Schrupp and Ellen Stenger are sisters and co-owners of both NexGen Dairy and NexGen Market in Eden Valley, Minnesota. They can be reached at Nexgendairy@gmail.com.

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