Looking after colostrum cows

Looking after colostrum cows
By Katrina Roberts, Anexa Herd Health Veterinarian

By the time you read this many of you will have your first calves on the ground. If you are well prepared then “bring on calving”, however this season the autumn weather has made ‘being prepared for calving that much more difficult”. Your cows may not be at BCS 5-5.5, your heifers may have come home underweight, you may have less supplement on hand for spring and you may be below your target average pasture cover. Rest assured you are not alone!

With that in mind the colostrum cows need more attention than ever – and giving them an extra bit of love will set them up for a better season to make you more milk, cost you less and get back in calf more quickly.

10 things that will help a colostrum cow thrive

  • Remove the calf from the cow and get her milked as soon as possible after calving. There is research in many fields (including research from our own Cognosco group) that support this management strategy. The less time the cow spends with her calf and the quicker she is milked out fully, the less likely she is to get mastitis, the more likely she is to get eating, the less likely she will get clinical milk fever and the more milk she will produce.

  • These cows must be offered ad libitum high quality feed. After calving these animals do not have their full appetite and therefore if they are not offered food and plenty of it, they will not compete with the cows in the mob that calved 4-5 days ago. as there will be no feed left for them when they feel like eating. Colostrum cows will not graze to
    1500-1600kg/DM; accepting this mob will have slightly higher residuals than the milking herd will lead to better performance. Just note the paddocks the colostrums grazed through and earmark them for silage in the spring. There is no point filling these cows up with poor quality silage, or hay, as this will end up suppressing intakes further leading to further condition loss.

  • Ensure the colostrum cows get the right amount of minerals supplemented in the right way. Making assumptions about intakes of grass or PKE to get their minerals is not good enough. We know it is normal for calcium levels to be low for 24-36h after calving, but we want these cows to get out of this low level as quickly as possible. We also know that older cows (6year+) have lower calcium for longer and are therefore at risk of becoming a down cow in the colostrum mob. Dusting a fresh break of grass with lime flour once a day at 200-300g/cow, and on some farms 200g dusted on fresh breaks twice a day is recommended. If your colostrum cows are getting access to supplements (maize or PKE) then lime flour should be mixed in with the supplements as well, at the appropriate rates. Lime flour is not very palatable so just adding lots of lime flour to supplements will lead to reduced intakes and/or uneven intakes of minerals. These cows also need magnesium which can be dusted with the lime flour, drenched, mixed with the supplement or added to the water, the method of supplementation of mag will be farm specific, so speak to your vet about ways of tweaking it for this mob.

    “What’s better for the cow is also better for the calf. Removing the calf sooner after birth means the calf is less likely to get navel ill, more likely to get the right amount of good quality colostrum (if you have a tubing policy on your farm) and less likely to be affected by adverse weather. Colostrum deteriorates over time (both in the udder and in the bucket) so the fresher it’s collected and fed, the better.”


  • Consider extra mineral supplementation for high-risk cows. Cows that were down last season, have had issues calving, are very fat (>BCS 5.5), are carryovers or are 6+ years old are at increased risk of problems. Giving these animals extra calcium on the day of calving will improve dry matter intakes in these animals. Calcium boluses or starter drenches can fill this role.

  • Be vigilant checking for mastitis. Strip the freshly-calved cow at first milking onto a dark surface (RMT paddle is useful for this) looking for any changes in the milk. You can use teat spray on cows in the colostrum mob both pre and post milking, as the milk is not being used for human consumption. Ensure you wait for the teat spray to dry before you cup the cow. Ideally, mastitis cows should not be run in with the colostrum cows but if there is a mastitis cow it should be milked after the colostrum cows to reduce the risk of cross infection. Ensure you milk out the colostrum cows fully as milk left in the udder is a mastitis risk. Handle the colostrum cows quietly as cows that are stressed will not let down their milk. If you have used a teat sealant at drying off or in the heifers, ensure you hand strip as much sealant out as possible. Once a cow leaves the colostrum mob it is often hard to find sick cows, therefore they need to leave the colostrum mob “healthy and uninfected” otherwise they will be potentially infecting other cows. It is easier to clear up an infection when it is recent; most cases of mastitis that occur within 30 days of calving have become infected during the dry period, therefore if you look hard enough you should find the clinical cases in the colostrum mob. Using the RMT paddle at the end of the colostrum period as a screening tool is a great way of making sure that ONLY clean, low SCC cows enter the milking mob.

  • Consider OAD (Once A Day) milking of this mob. It will definitely reduce the workload on farm and therefore mean that other jobs are done better, with more care and attention, which will in turn lead to better outcomes. There is also some research to suggest it may reduce calcium demand and reduce negative energy balance, however there is still more to learn in this area. Because you are only seeing them OAD it’s crucial that they get a pretty thorough health check; if you miss a mild case of mastitis or milk fever at that one milking, it could be much more severe by tomorrow. There are some potential negatives though as milking colostrum cows OAD does potentially increase the risk of IS grades as the dry cow therapy antibiotics have been tested with TAD milking to clear antibiotic from the udder and the risk of higher SCC if cows are not being checked twice daily at this high risk time. The contract you have with your milk company outlines the conditions of supply, which includes a specified number of milkings in the colostrum mob.

  • Choose paddocks for these cows wisely. Do not use effluent paddocks as these will be high in potassium, which reduces magnesium absorption and therefore increases the risk of milk fever. Don’t have them graze near the calf barn as this will reduce the cows’ grazing time while they instead spend time bellowing for their calf. If you are feeding PKE in trailers in the paddocks, you may need to consider where the trailer needs to be located to achieve optimum intake.

  • Aim to prevent, treat and record all animal health issues. Are there any sub groups of cows that you learned about last season that struggle in your herd that you can treat before a problem arises such as carryovers, late calvers, cows in BCS 4 at calving. Health conditions like retained afterbirth, milk fever, assisted calvings and twins all greatly increase the chance of further complications like ketosis. Being proactive but responsible with antibiotics, anti-inflammatories and starter drenches in these at risk cows will make a big difference to their recovery and their performance for the season.

  • Check the performance of your colostrum cows. If you are unsure how this group is performing we can check their energy status cow-side, and we can now check calcium and magnesium levels in our clinics at our lab. This means a quicker turn-around time for you. These conditions (ketosis, hypocalcaemia and hypomagnesemia) are obvious when a cow shows clinical disease, however they are causing production and reproduction losses long before clinical signs are apparent. Therefore monitoring the herd performance is extremely useful for optimising performance. For more information about whether this extra testing may be of benefit for your herd please speak to your vet.

  • Have well-trained staff managing the colostrum mob feeding and milking. If staff are able to detect a mildly affected cow before she becomes very sick, the chances of 100% recovery are much better. For example ensure that you have a thermometer in the cowshed to check temperatures of any cow that is a little off. (Normal range is 38 - 39oC). Cows that are struggling can be kept in the colostrum mob for longer than usual, making it much easier to keep an eye on them and pick up a problem before it gets too serious. The key is that a cow or heifer must leave colostrum mob ready to compete with a middle-aged-aggressive cow that calved 6 weeks ago! If you need help training staff then please give your vet a call.

  • I appreciate you may have a “love / hate” relationship with the colostrum cows, but it is these cows that are the most important mob on the farm and the extra time spent with them will lead to a good return on investment, and better overall results. For more information or advice, catch up with your lead Anexa Vet.

    Date Added: Wednesday, 1st July 2020


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