Animal Health

Cooperative Extension Service
Purdue University
West Lafayette, IN 47907

Feeding Colostrum to Calves

R. L. Morter, D. V. M., School of Veterinary Medicine, Purdue University

Feeding calves colostrum benefits the producer of beef or dairy cattle by saving calf lives. Colostrum can be particularly valuable when given to calves that are orphaned or weak at birth or that do not have a strong nursing reflex. Colostrum provides essential antibodies and is an excellent non-salable nutritional resource, high in vitamins A and D.

A newborn calf is exposed to pathogens immediately after birth. Initially, the calf is dependent on the mother's immunoglobulins or antibodies, which it ingests and absorbs through the gut. However, antibody absorption ceases about 28 hours post partum. Thus, it is extremely important that the calf continue to receive the passive protection provided by antibodies in colostrum. This continued protection should be made available to calves as soon as possible after birth.


Establish the practice of giving every newborn 6-8 percent of its body weight in colostrum during the first 5 hours post partum (or after the calf is found). This should be divided into two feedings 2-3 hours apart.

Do not assume that a calf born in your absence has received enough colostrum from its mother. Go ahead and feed it 2 1/2-3 pints orally. Even if it had a sufficient amount in the previous hours, the additional colostrum will seldom cause scouring.

Feed the calf its own mother's colostrum for at least 3 days (six feedings).For the first three feedings, because the colostrum is very concentrated, dilute it with an equal part of water. For the next three feedings, use two parts of colostrum to one part water. Be sure to measure both ingredients­over­diluting reduces nutrient intake, can contribute to scours and results in poor­doers.

When the calf is 4-5 days old, its diet should consist of: (a) diluted colostrum at a rate of 8 percent of its body weight (divided into two feedings), (b) an 18-20 percent protein coarse-textured calf starter and (c) high quality hay (third cutting alfalfa). The starter and hay should be fed free choice. Colostrum intake at 8 percent of body weight is sufficient for the calf's nutritional needs as it grows.

To determine amount of diluted colostrum to be fed per day, multiply approximate calf weight by 8 percent. For example:

80 pounds x .08 = 6.4 pounds (or about 6 1/2 pints)

This equals 3 1/4 pints of undiluted colostrum per day, which is divided in half for each feeding. Thus, for the first three feedings, 1 5/8 % pints of colostrum is used (diluted 1:1 with water); whereas for the next three feedings, 2+ pints are fed (diluted 2:1).


Feeding colostrum is done most efficiently using an esophageal or oral feeding bag, available from your veterinarian or animal health supply house. Use only a tube with a hard plastic cannula on the end and a bulb large enough to minimize inadvertent passage into the trachea.

The oral feeding bag will help maintain the calf with a weak nursing reflex, often enabling it to develop a normal reflex in a few days, if provided adequate nutrition.

To begin with, measure the distance from the calf's mouth to just behind the last rib with the tube, and clamp the tube this distance from the bulb end. Draw some colostrum from all four teats of the mother into the feeding bag. Because the antibody content is highest in the first milk drawn, use some milk from each quarter. Every 500 cubic centimeters (cc) equals one pint or one pound of milk.

To feed the calf, put one hand in its mouth just behind the front teeth and slowly pass the stomach tube. The first few times this is done, have another person place his hand on the left side of the calf's neck to help determine where the tube is going. He should be able to feel the bulb if it passes down the esophagus; if he cannot, the tube has gone down the trachea and must be removed and inserted again properly. (With a calf under 70 pounds, it is nearly impossible to insert the bulb down the wrong passage.)

When the tube has passed into the esophagus as far as the clamp, the bulb will be in the stomach. Release the clamp and let the colostrum flow through the tube.


The colostral milk from at least the first six post partum milkings is much more than a calf can consume and is not salable. However, it can be collected, stored and fed in lieu of whole milk or milk replacer. The two common methods of storing are freezing and fermenting (souring).

Freezing is much easier to manage and is recommended in most herds of less than 50 cows. Fermentation is a continuous bacterial process which requires daily additions of colostrum or whole milk. Units of less than 50 cows will probably not have cows freshening often enough to make this feasible, and in such cases, farmers are understandably reluctant to use valuable, salable whole milk for the process.


Generally, plastic freezer bags or containers are used. Bags take up the least amount of freezer space if placed in square containers with sloping sides until their contents are frozen. Put only enough colostrum in each container for one feeding, and label to show amount of colostrum and amount of water needed for dilution.

At each feeding time, remove a container of colostrum from the freezer for the next feeding to give it adequate time for thawing.


Use a clean container big enough to hold the anticipated volume - a 20-30 gallon capacity garbage can with a plastic liner works well. Pour the colostrum directly into the container, and keep at a temperature of 50°­70°F. Below this range, it will not sour properly. Since fermentation requires air, leave the lid loose.

Continue adding colostrum daily; otherwise, spoilage bacteria will take over and destroy the product. Properly managed, fermentation containers can be maintained for a year at a time before restarting. Before using, stir it to break up the curds and mix in the whey.

Colostrum for fermentation may be obtained from your next cow that freshens or from another dairyman. However, do not use colostrum from cows being treated with antibiotics. Antibiotics prevent fermentation.

New 2/80

Cooperative Extension work in Agriculture and Home Economics, state of Indiana. Purdue University. and U.S. Department of Agriculture cooperating; H. A. Wadsworth, Director, West Lafayette. IN. Issued in furtherance of the acts of May 8 and June 30, 1914. The Cooperative Extension Service of Purdue University 15 an affirmative action/equal opportunity institution.