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Home » Issue 1 (Summer 2015) » Independent Study Articles » A comparison of maternal colostrum and colostrum replacement products in regards to bacterial contamination, passive transfer and calf mortality

A comparison of maternal colostrum and colostrum replacement products in regards to bacterial contamination, passive transfer and calf mortality

Author Name: Daisy Rankin; BSc (Hons) Bioveterinary Science



Antibodies provided in colostrum allow neonates to fight infections effectively in the hours after birth and strengthen the immune system to enable it to protect the animal throughout its lifetime. Calves with adequate colostrum intake have reduced risk of failure of passive transfer and therefore a smaller chance of developing disease. Colostrum replacement products may be used as an alternative to maternal colostrum where farms have limited colostrum reserves, poor quality colostrum, or to reduce disease transmission. Colostrum replacers and maternal colostrum have been compared in terms of disease transmission, Immunoglobulin G absorption, and calf mortality. Research has shown that feeding a colostrum replacement product reduces disease transmission however, results from studies comparing immunoglobulin G absorption are less conclusive, and little research exists comparing calf mortality between the two feeding methods. Further research is needed due to limitations in previous studies. Direct comparison between the two colostrum feeding methods has been difficult due to differences in the methods, frequency and amount of colostrum fed to calves, as well as other contributing factors, therefore, further research is necessary to give producers the information needed to make an informed decision on whether to feed their calves colostrum replacers or maternal colostrum.


1.0 Introduction

In domestic large animals, the placenta prevents transmission of immunoglobulins from dam to foetus in utero, therefore calves have essentially no immune protection at birth (Weaver et al, 2000). They are born hypogammaglobulinemic, relying on immunoglobulin from colostrum to obtain passive immunity (Quigley et al, 1998). Immunoglobulins are globular proteins with antimicrobial and other protective bioactivities, existing at different concentrations in blood serum, milk and colostrum (Gapper et al, 2007). There are several different types of immunoglobulins present in colostrum, the most abundant being immunoglobulin G (IgG), forming 81% of total Ig (Stelwagen et al, 2009). These antibodies help protect neonates by strengthening the immune system until it becomes fully functional and able to fight infections effectively (Mowery, 2001).

Bovine colostrum contains essential nutrients, antibodies, hormones, and growth factors that are important for nutrient supply, host defence, growth, and neonatal adaptation (Hammon and Blum, 1998). Colostrum intake has systemic effects on metabolism and endocrine status of neonates (Hammon and Blum, 1998), and not only provides passive immunity for calves, but greatly affects development of the neonatal intestine (Hammer et al, 2004). As well as the nutritional and immune benefits colostrum provides, it offers calves one of their first opportunities for exposure to pathogens such as Escheria coli, Salmonella spp., Myco-plasma spp., and Mycobacterium avium ssp. Paratuberculosis (Swan et al, 2007). Passive immunity is critical to survival and health of neonatal calves (Quigley et al, 1998), as beginning life with strong immune systems mean they are likely to present fewer problems to producers over their production lifespans (Stabel, 2008).

Reducing calfhood morbidity and mortality rates is a major goal of dairy producers (Stabel, 2008). Colostrum is essential in determining calf health and survival, with adequate colostrum intake the most important management factor affecting morbidity and mortality in pre-weaned calves (Mowery, 2001). A national survey of heifer management practices in 1991 by the National Animal Health Monitoring System found 8.4% of dairy heifers born alive died prior to weaning, and a follow up survey in 1995 found mortality rate had increased to 10.8% (Mowery, 2001). The average mortality rate of live born dairy heifers in their first month was recently reported as 3.4%, ranging from 0 to 12% (Brickell et al, 2009a).

In response to concerns about neonatal mortality, disease, and colostrum quality, several companies have developed products to supplement or replace colostrum (Mowery, 2001). Most products are based on whey or pooled bovine colostrum as the primary source of IgG and provide varying IgG levels (Quigley et al, 1998). Colostrum replacers (CR) should contain a minimum of 100g IgG per dose and must contain a nutrient pack providing protein, energy, vitamins, and minerals similar to levels found in maternal colostrum (MC) (Quigley et al, 2001). In the last few years, CRs have increased in popularity and are designed as an alternative to colostrum on farms with poor quality or limited colostrum reserves, or to prevent transmission of infectious diseases (Smith and Foster, 2007). However, CRs are thought to provide less IgG than colostrum, and have not been widely accepted or used by producers (Mowery, 2001), therefore it is vital producers are well informed of the advantages and disadvantages of feeding MC or CR (Priestley et al, 2013).


2.0 Comparison of maternal colostrum and colostrum replacers

2.1 Bacterial contamination

Many producers use CRs to replace colostrum when it is unavailable due to maternal agalactia, acute mastitis, or other causes (Quigley et al, 2001). Using CR products may allow producers to improve levels of passive immunity while reducing risk of pathogen exposure through colostrum (Godden, Haines and Hagman, 2009), decreasing the number of cases of diseases such as Johne’s disease (Nielsen, Bjerre and Toft, 2008). Johne’s disease is a chronic granulomatous enteritis of ruminants, caused by Mycobacterium avium subspecies paratuberculosis (MAP) (Barrett et al, 2006). Transmission occurs primarily via faeces and in utero, but is also excreted in colostrum and milk (Nielsen, Bjerre and Toft, 2008). MAP infections, characterised by persistent diarrhoea, weight loss and protein-losing enteropathy (Good et al, 2009), cause major losses to the dairy industry, due to reduced milk production and premature culling (Sweeney, 1996).

Commercial CR products may provide a viable alternative to feeding MC and could serve as a very effective management tool to prevent colostral disease transmission (Swan et al, 2007). Recent studies have found that feeding a CR can reduce transmission of Johne’s disease by 44% (Pithua et al, 2009). In this study, 497 heifer calves were fed either plasma derived CR or raw bovine MC and monitored to adulthood where they were tested for MAP antibodies. It was found that calves fed CR were less likely to develop MAP infections. Nielsen et al, (2008) found that calves fed MC were twice as likely to be infected by MAP as herd mates fed CR, however in this study, calves were given the opportunity to nurse from their dams, therefore may have contracted MAP infections via other means such as faeces or bedding rather than through MC. Mowery (2001) found that true replacement of colostrum may break disease cycles and prevent calves acquiring disease from their dams, and Stabel, (2008) found feeding CR is a key management tool for control of paratuberculosis in dairy herds.


2.2 Passive transfer

Passive immunity is provided when MC containing large amounts of IgG is fed to calves within the first few hours of birth (Quigley et al, 2001). The ability to absorb IgG intact across intestinal epithelium diminishes rapidly after birth and ceases by approximately 24 hours of age, therefore rapid colostrum intake is essential (Hammer et al, 2004). Failure to absorb adequate colostral immunoglobulins causes failure of passive transfer (FPT), resulting in increased risk of neonatal disease and mortality and negative effects on future herd health, longevity and performance (Swan et al, 2007). FPT is a condition that predisposes neonates to development of disease and currently affects 35% of dairy calves (Weaver et al, 2000). Calves may be defined as having FPT if serum IgG concentration is <10mg/mL when sampled between 24 and 48 hours of age (Weaver et al, 2000).

Varying reports have been published on success of passive transfer of CRs (Priestley et al, 2013). Studies evaluating efficacy of commercial CRs to prevent FPT in calves have produced very mixed, and often unacceptable results (Godden, Haines and Hagman, 2009). Several studies have reported that some commercial CR products were successful (Foster et al, 2006; Jones et al, 2004; Quigley et al, 2001), however, other products failed to achieve average concentrations of 10mg/mL IgG in serum of calves fed CR (Smith and Foster, 2007; Swan et al, 2007; Quigley et al, 2001).

Jones et al, (2004) compared absorption of IgG in 78 calves fed MC or CR at 1.05 or 13.5 hours of age. Blood was sampled at 0 hours, 24 hours and weekly to determine plasma IgG. It was found that mean plasma IgG at 24 hours did not differ between colostrum and replacement, therefore CRs could successfully replace MC as an IgG source for calves. Godden et al, (2009) found calves which were fed 3L CR containing 66.7g IgG/L had very similar IgG concentrations at 24 hours compared to calves which received 3.8L MC in a study of 96 calves, and Poulsen et al (2010) found no significant difference in rates of passive transfer between bovine serum-based CR and MC.

In contrast, Arthington et al, (2000) studied absorption efficiency and IgG levels in 36 calves, 12 and 24 hours after feeding four types of colostral products. Each was fed twice, within 2 hours of birth and at 12 hours, and due to different IgG contents of colostral products, calves were fed a total of 200, 90, 50 and 60g IgG. Calves fed MC had highest IgG concentrations at 12 and 24 hours after feeding at 8.3g/L and all attained successful passive transfer. Colostral supplements based on dried colostrum were poorly absorbed at 5.7g/L, resulting in FPT. The supplement products had different absorption efficiencies, therefore, this may be considered a more suggestive study and highlights the importance of choosing colostral supplements carefully, not only selecting for highest IgG concentration but also best absorption efficiency. Another study found that calves fed CR had significantly lower IgG concentrations (Smith and Foster 2007). Sixty three calves were fed either 2 or 3 packets of CR providing 41g/L IgG and were compared to a control group which received 4.5L MC. Those fed 2 or 3 packets of CR achieved IgG concentrations of 7.5g/L and 9.1g/L, whereas those fed MC achieved an average of 17.6g/L. It was calculated that FPT was 95% and 76% for those fed 2 or 3 packets of CR. Swan et al, (2007) found higher rates of FPT when feeding CR, and Fidler et al, (2011) and Godden et al, (2009) found similar results when calves were fed commercial CR at recommended doses.

An explanation for inconsistent efficacy of different commercial CR products among studies may be that CRs simply vary by quality (Godden, Haines and Hagman, 2009). Efficiency of IgG absorption from CR products may also be affected by the amount of material fed (Quigley et al, 1998). Direct comparison between studies is therefore difficult as in each study calves are fed at varying times after birth and with different amounts of colostrum. Proteins other than IgG in CR products might also reduce efficiency of IgG absorption (Quigley et al, 1998). These studies show the need for producers to adopt management practices or technologies to improve colostrum management, as many producers still have significant losses from FPT (Godden, Haines and Hagman, 2009).


2.3 Calf mortality

Hammer et al (2004) found that colostrum deprived calves are 50 to 75 times more likely to die before 21 days of age than colostrum-fed calves, with more deaths occurring in the first week of life. High mortality risk due to inadequate colostrum intake continues throughout the calf’s life with mortality reported as twice as high for heifers with FPT compared with heifers with successful transfer (Wells et al., 1996; Robison et al., 1988). DeNise et al (1989) demonstrated that heifers with FPT had significantly lower mature equivalent milk production during 1st lactations, meaning they are at increased risk of culling due to reduced production. Weaver et al (2000) also found that heifers with FPT had a greater tendency to be culled in 1st lactations when compared with those that had adequate passive transfer. The economic impacts of failure to achieve adequate passive immunity are substantial as FPT can affect the animal throughout its entire lifespan (Arthington, Cattell and Quigley, 2000).

A relatively small number of studies have compared mortality rates between feeding CR and MC to calves. Arthington et al, (2000) found there were no differences in mortality between groups fed CR and MC, and similar findings were reported in a recent study which found no difference in mortality rates from birth to first calving when comparing CR and MC (Pithua et al., 2010). More information on morbidity and mortality of calves fed CR would improve the body of knowledge and help producers make informed decisions about colostrum feeding management.


2.4 Future Research       

A large commercial comparison on morbidity and mortality rates between CR and MC would be beneficial as only a small number of studies exist on this topic. Studies looking at effects of other proteins may answer questions about their impact on IgG absorption, and repeating current studies with larger sample sizes and in other herds would make results more reliable. Research taking into consideration the economics of purchasing CR could also provide another factor for producers to consider when choosing between the two feeding methods.


3.0 Conclusion

Due to their immature immune systems, calves rely on passive immunity to help them fight infections effectively in the first few hours of birth, therefore adequate colostrum intake is essential. Commercial CR products have been developed for use when there is limited or poor quality colostrum and for preventing disease transmission. Mixed opinions exist as to whether CR or MC should be fed to calves, with studies comparing levels of IgG absorption, mortality rates, and disease prevalence between the two colostrum feeding methods. Limitations in reports published so far on the subject include differences in the frequency and amount of colostrum fed in each study, making direct comparison difficult. A lack of information on the effect of other proteins on IgG absorption and other factors affecting disease transmission also limit these studies. It is vital the body of knowledge is improved to allow producers to make the correct decision between feeding CR or MC to calves to reduce FPT, disease transmission, and calf mortality.



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