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Feeding Colostrum Through Transition Phase Improves Calf Growth, Health

Maureen Hanson


June 8, 2021



Ensuring that every calf receives colostrum, ideally within the first 4 hours after birth, has become a well-embraced standard in the dairy industry. Some dairies also routinely deliver a second dose a few hours after the first.


But is that first-day feeding enough? Mounting evidence suggests myriad benefits can be realized by following Mother Nature’s design and feeding colostrum or transition milk for several days before switching calves solely to milk or milk replacer.

Recent studies on the practice include:


Extended colostrum -- A collaborative study between Iranian and German researchers that recently was published in the Journal of Dairy Science split 144 heifer calves into three groups after their initial colostrum feedings.


For the first two weeks of life, Group 1 received 5 kg (11 pounds or about 5 quarts) per day of pasteurized whole milk. The second group received an equivalent volume of milk, but 350 grams of the daily liquid ration was made up of pasteurized colostrum. The third group received 700 daily grams of colostrum as a part of the total 5 kg ration.


The researchers found that the group receiving the most colostrum (700 g) had significantly higher weaning 61-day weight, final bodyweight (at 81 days), heart girth change, feed efficiency, and average daily gain (ADG). The group fed only milk had a greater chance of running a fever than either of the colostrum groups; scored lower in general appearance than the other two groups; showed a greater incidence of diarrhea compared to the high-colostrum group; and had a higher incidence of pneumonia than either colostrum group.

Transition milk – Michigan State University (MSU) researchers published another recent study in the Journal of Dairy Science in which they evaluated the merits of feeding transition milk, which was defined as the second through fourth milkings after calving.


For nine feedings after initial colostrum feeding, 105 calves were assigned to one of three groups (35 calves each): (a) milk replacer; (b) transition milk; or (c) a 50:50 blend of milk replacer and commercial colostrum replacer. All feedings of were delivered three times a day for three days.


They found that calves that received either transition milk or the 50:50 blend weighed about 6 pounds more at weaning at 56 days, and showed improvements in observational health scores and blood health markers compared to calves that were fed milk replacer only.


MSU researcher Dr. Miriam Weber Nielsen, who led the study team, discussed some more in-depth, follow-up research in an MSU Dairy Extension bulletin. “We found that transition milk stimulates development of the digestive tract by increasing small intestine surface area and potential nutrient absorption,” she explained. “Calves not receiving transition milk may be missing out on the opportunity for increased gut development and improved health.”


Nielsen said the improved growth and digestive-tract development could set animals up for better lifelong health and productivity. She noted the large body of documented evidence that improving early life growth and health correlates to increased first-lactation and lifetime milk production.


She acknowledged that collecting and feeding transition milk can be a logistical challenge on many dairies. Conversely, mimicking transition milk by supplementing with commercial colostrum replacer is highly desirable from a management and efficiency standpoint, but the cost of doing so might be difficult to justify.


Still, Nielsen was optimistic that dairies will find innovative ways to achieve the feeding practice as the benefits to heifer development are confirmed. “On farms where feeding transition milk or supplementing with colostrum replacer is feasible, improved health and faster growth of calves may be achieved,” she stated.


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