Kisii Agricultural Training Center Livestock Officer Caroline Kisera with some of their calfs. [Sammy Omingo, Standard]

Dear Daktari, I read with a lot of keenness the article you wrote on welcoming a young calf. Last year, I lost my calf a few days after birth and my vet said the cause of death was a lack of enough colostrum. The cow suffered prolonged labour and when the calf finally came, it was lethargic and did not suckle as required. We tried bucket feeding but the calf suffered diarrhoea and died about a week into its life. [Alfonse Opiyo, Kitale]

What is colostrum and why it is important

Thank you for your question and sorry for the loss of your calf. Colostrum is the first yellowish, thick and creamy milk produced by a dam after birth. To newborns of ruminants, colostrum is a lifeline without which the calf will die for lack of immunity. Ruminants have a unique placenta that does not allow antibodies to pass from the mother to the fetus consequently calves are born without immunity, yet they are very vulnerable at a young age. To take care of this, mother nature has provided colostrum through which they obtain their immunity.

Colostrum is a wonder secretion that is rich in antibodies, immunoglobulins, nutrients and growth factors that the newborn calf needs to survive the delicate stage. However the antibodies have a very short window during which they can pass through the digestive tract and into the bloodstream to confer immunity. The absorption of the antibodies starts to diminish six hours after birth and by 24 hours no antibodies can pass through into the body system. By this time the calf should have taken colostrum equivalent to ten per cent of its weight. Colostrum contains transferring and lactoferrins which hinder the growth of micro-organisms in the gut and thus protect the calf from any diseases.

When there is no colostrum

Sometimes the calf may not get colostrum. This happens when the dam does not produce colostrum or when the mother dies during birth. In this case, you need to look for an alternative. In large firms you may be lucky to get another dam that has delivered but colostrum can be stored in a freezer at -18 degrees centigrade to -20 degrees centigrade for up to six months or in a fridge at 4 degrees centigrade for a week. This can be given to a calf after being thawed slowly.

The frozen colostrum should never be heated or placed in a microwave as the heat will destroy the antibodies. It is always good to have a colostrum plan to ensure that you have a steady supply of colostrum for the calves. When collecting colostrum, the mother must be in good health. Freshly collected colostrum or those initially frozen should be fed to the calf within an hour.

It is always good to allow the calf to suckle by itself so that it can quickly ingest the required colostrum. Bottle and bucket feeding can also be done to assist a calf to suckle. In cases of prolonged labour as it happened with Alfonse’s calf, the young one may not suckle well and such cases it may need to be assisted to ingest enough colostrum within six hours after birth. Calves that do not get enough colostrum will have weak immunity and can easily succumb to diseases and die at a young age.

[The writer is a veterinary surgeon and the head of communications at the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) Kenya. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of FAO]