Key considerations for clean colostrum and a healthy calf

Posted: February 11, 2021 | Written By: Anne Proctor, Ph.D

Article originally written for and published by Progressive Dairy.

Successful colostrum management requires careful attention to cleanliness. Colostrum, while it is still in a healthy cow, should have a bacteria count of essentially zero. However, by the time it gets into the calf, bacteria counts are often very high.

Feeding “dirty” colostrum sets the calf up for failure before she even leaves the maternity pen. Dirty colostrum inoculates her system with pathogens to which she has no immunity. The presence of pathogens triggers a more rapid closing of the pathways that enable a newborn calf to absorb colostral antibodies. While our intentions are to give her the benefits colostrum provides, if we are not paying attention to sanitation, we may be doing more harm than good.

Harvest clean colostrum from the udder

A fresh cow should be prepped with a little more care than any other lactating animal. The teats need to be thoroughly cleaned and dried prior to attaching the unit. The unit itself must be clean. If the milking units used for maternity cows are not going through the CIP wash cycle with other milk harvesting equipment, make sure they are being properly cleaned and sanitized between uses. The benefits are twofold: providing clean colostrum for the calf and preventing mastitis in the dam.

Use a clean collection pail

Just like the milking unit, the collection pail needs to be properly cleaned and sanitized between uses. A hot water rinse is not good enough. This pail should be cleaned using the same steps as other calf-feeding equipment: rinse with lukewarm water, scrub with hot water and chlorinated alkaline detergent, rinse with acid and allow to dry. If we have harvested colostrum from a clean udder using a clean milking unit and into a collection pail that has been properly cleaned and sanitized, we will have a high-quality product.

Feeding equipment

The next challenge is getting it into the calf without contaminating it on the way. If you are feeding with a bottle and nipple, be sure your washing procedure follows the protocol outlined above. An additional step is to spray the inside of the bottle and both inside and outside of the nipple with 50 parts per million (ppm) chlorine dioxide immediately before filling with colostrum to kill any pathogens that may have come in contact with the items during storage. If you are using disposable bags, you have eliminated the risk posed by reusable feeding equipment but introduced another potential source of contamination: the funnel. The funnel needs to be cleaned after every use just like other feeding equipment. Finally, if you are tube feeding colostrum, be sure you have got a brush that fits through the tube so it can be properly cleaned between uses. A chlorine dioxide rinse can be helpful here also.

Your hands

A source of contamination that is often forgotten are the hands. If you do not see soap and paper towels by the sink in the maternity area, there is a good chance people are not washing their hands well between handling the cow and feeding the calf. Disposable milking gloves can mitigate the risk. Insist that the person feeding colostrum puts clean gloves on before handling the colostrum and feeding the calf. This simple change in protocol can reduce the number of calves needing to be treated early in life.

Storing colostrum

If you are working with stored colostrum, there are several periods of time in which pathogens can grow. In food preparation for humans, the range of temperature between 40ºF and 140ºF is considered the “danger zone.” At temperatures within this range, bacteria numbers can double every 20 minutes – and at this rate of growth, even a small amount of contamination can become a big problem quickly. Although we are preparing food for calves, the same principles apply.

Colostrum comes out of the cow at about 102ºF, which puts it in the danger zone. It either needs to be fed immediately or stored for later use. If storing, reducing the temperature quickly is critical to reduce the growth of pathogens. Rapid cooling can be accomplished by using a storage container with a lot of surface area relative to the volume. A half-filled bag of liquid will cool more quickly than liquid in a bottle, which will cool more quickly than liquid in a pail.

To cool colostrum quickly, use a container that has a lot of surface exposed to the cold. Several smaller containers will cool more quickly than one large one. If using bags, lay them flat so more of the colostrum is in contact with the cold air or water. Do not stack bags until they have reached storage temperature. Stacking reduces the amount of surface exposed to the cold and slows the cooling process. Create an environment in which the temperature drops out of the danger zone as quickly as possible to reduce bacteria growth before storage.

Create a big difference in temperature between the colostrum and the environment in which it is cooling. A bag of colostrum placed in ice water will cool more quickly than one placed in the refrigerator. If you are storing colostrum in the refrigerator, “pre-cooling” in an ice water bath will preserve the quality of the colostrum as well as keeping the temperature in the refrigerator more stable for sensitive items such as vaccines that may share the space. While commercial refrigerators and freezers are made to cool items quickly, pre-cooling can be beneficial if you are using a regular household appliance for colostrum storage.

Warming colostrum

Like cooling, warming colostrum for use is another period in which bacteria can grow. In the time when the colostrum temperature is over 40ºF, bacteria will grow. The more quickly we can raise the temperature to feeding temperature, the less bacteria growth will occur. The water temperature should be between 120ºF and 140ºF to facilitate thawing without affecting the IgG concentration. A high surface-area-to-volume ratio speeds the warming process. While heating, our goal is not to get the temperature out of the danger zone but to get it to feeding temperature as quickly as possible to reduce bacteria growth between storage and feeding.

Colostrum is essential to provide immunity to the newborn calf, but sometimes lapses in sanitation and handling can inoculate the calf rather than protect her. Harvest colostrum from a clean udder using equipment that has been properly cleaned and sanitized between uses. Transfer colostrum into feeding equipment that has also been cleaned and sanitized and get it into the calf using hands wearing a new pair of disposable gloves.

If storing colostrum for future use, be aware of the food safety danger zone and create conditions in which colostrum spends as little time as possible between 40ºF and 140ºF. A renewed focus on colostrum management can result in calves with better passive transfer and fewer health challenges early in life.

Article originally written for and published by Progressive Dairy.

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