Colostrum becomes easier to understand if we remember that it’s also known as “first milk”. This is a special type of milk produced by mammals, including humans, during late pregnancy. It contains important nutrients that help the baby to grow, as well as “antibodies” that enable the animal to resist disease in the first few months of life. Calves and other farm animals are born without antibodies. This means that they have no means of protecting themselves against disease during the first six months of their lives.
The only source of antibodies is through the colostrum supplied by their mothers. So it’s essential that they get enough colostrum immediately. Calves that don’t get enough colostrum can soon become weak and die.
Do’s and don’ts
- A calf can only absorb antibodies during the first 12 hours of its life. Therefore it must drink from its mother as soon and as much as possible.
- Never milk a cow before the calf has been allowed to drink as much as it needs.
- If the cow or the calf is very weak, give it all the help it needs. But if they are doing well, leave them alone! A nervous, frightened cow will not release all of her milk, and the calf will not get enough colostrum.
- Colostrum is secreted for three to five days after birth. In addition to the antibodies, it contains nutrients that are not found in ordinary milk. These nutrients help the calf grow and gain strength. So don’t milk the cow until at least three days have passed.
Source: Western Cape department of agriculture information pack prepared by AO de Kock, Elsenburg veterinary services.