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Colostrum: Breakfast of Champions

Yesterday afternoon, my winter programming run began with Cow Capital Beef Day here in Miles City.  It’s one of my favorite programs each year – people from all over southeast Montana attend, weather depending, and it’s the first time we all get together after the New Year.  It was also the site of my debut Extension presentation in 2007, so yesterday was my 5th anniversary at Cow Capital – my, how time flies.
I spoke about preparing for the calving season and the topic of colostrum was one I got a ton of questions on.  So I thought I’d make at least a token effort to make this blog educational and write a bit about some of the questions I got.
Colostrum is the first milk that a cow gives after she calves.  The baby calf is born without a functioning immune system, and the antibodies contained in the colostrum allow the calf to receive “passive immunity”.  It’s called that because the calf absorbs the antibodies across the gut wall rather than making its own antibodies to an immune challenge.  That part comes later in the calf’s life, and it’s called “active immunity”.
There’s a bit of a time constraint on the whole colostrum thing, too.  The calf is only able to absorb the giant proteins that are antibodies for a short time – like 12 or so hours.  After that, the gut wall begins to close up and the antibodies just pass right by.
Calves with failure of passive immunity are twice as likely to get sick before weaning, and 5 times more likely to die.  So the colostrum conundrum has a big impact on the bottom line, too.
Yesterday folks wanted to know if purchased, powdered colostrum worked as well as natural colostrum milked from a cow, and if frozen cow colostrum from last year’s calving season would still be good this year.  Although nothing beats the real thing, powdered colostrum is better than nothing at all.  There are both supplements and replacements on the market – the replacements have higher concentrations of antibodies than supplements.  Antibodies are proteins, and can suffer from cold damage, so frozen colostrum from last year might not be quite as structurally sound as it was last year, but will still be helpful in a pinch.
When talking about thawing frozen colostrum, I always use the example from the 1980s anti-drug commercials: “This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs.”  Just like frying an egg changes the protein structure, heating frozen colostrum too fast or too hot does the same thing!
Calving season will be here before we know it!  Here’s a little reminder of just why that’s one of the most rewarding seasons on the ranch.

Tomorrow I’m helping tag and weigh the Custer County 4-H steers and put on a livestock quality assurance workshop for the kids – we’ll see what kind of a rodeo results!  Then next week, I’ll be a speaker on the Southeastern Montana Winter Ag Series.  I’ll be sure to report on all my travel adventures!

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