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Colostrum: Liquid Gold

Wild & Woolly – Spring 2007

The importance of high quality colostrum cannot be over-emphasized. Colostrum is so important that it is sometimes called “liquid gold.”

All mammals produce colostrum. It is the thick, yellowish, first milk produced by the female after parturition. Colostrum is rich in energy, protein, vitamins and minerals. Most importantly, it contains maternal antibodies that help protect the newborn from disease pathogens during the early part of its life.

The type of antibodies colostrum contains depends upon the antigens to which the dam was exposed by disease exposure or vaccination. Ewes and does should be vaccinated for overeating disease (Clostridium perfringins type C & D) and tetanus (clostridium tetani) in late pregnancy so that they will pass the antibodies for these important diseases to their offspring.

All newborn mammals need colostrum. While it is possible for a lamb or kid to survive without colostrum in a relatively disease-free environment, the likelihood of disease and death is much higher in lambs and kids that do not receive adequate colostrum.

Orphan lambs and kids are often more susceptible to diarrhea and pneumonia because they did not consume enough high quality colostrum.

Newborn lambs and kids have limited energy reserves and need rapid access to colostrum to maintain body temperature and survive, especially those born when it is cold. Lambs and kids are born with low vitamin A reserves. Colostrum is usually rich in vitamin A and helps to build stores in the newborn. Colostrum is also the first source of Vitamin E for the lamb or kid. The iron content of colostrum is 10 to 17 times higher in colostrum than normal milk. Colostrum also has laxative qualities and helps to eliminate fecal matter in the newborn’s digestive tract.

Research has shown that livestock vary in the quantity and quality of colostrum that they produce. Younger females tend to produce less colostrum than mature females. Inadequate nutrition during late pregnancy can reduce the quantity and quality of colostrum. In most underfed ewes, the lambs’ needs for colostrum often exceed the dam’s production, whereas females which are well-fed in late pregnancy usually produce more colostrum than their babies need.

Lambs and kids should nurse as soon after birth as possible in order to receive adequate colostrum. After parturition, it is a good idea to strip each teat to remove the wax plug and make sure the ewe or doe has enough colostrum to feed her offspring. Antibodies are large protein molecules that can only cross the intestinal wall and enter the bloodstream of the lamb and kid during the first 24 to 36 hours of life. Absorption is most efficient the first few hours after birth.

Lambs and kids that are too weak to nurse can be fed colostrum with a nippled bottle or stomach tube. It is recommended that newborns receive 10 percent of their body weight in colostrum within 24 hours of birth. This means that a 10 pound lamb should receive one pound (16 ounces) of colostrum. Colostrum should be fed at blood temperature, 2 to 4 ounces, at 3 to 4 intervals.

Sources of Colostrum

The best source of colostrum is the newborn’s dam. If this is not possible, fresh or frozen colostrum from other females in the flock can be used. It is always a good idea to milk out ewes and does that have extra milk (colostrum) and to freeze it for later use. Females which give birth to singles often have enough colostrum for a second baby. Colostrum from females in your own flock is the best because it will have custom-made antibodies. When using colostrum from another flock, try to choose a flock with a similar disease status.

Cow colostrum can serve as a substitute for lamb and goat colostrum, but because cow’s milk is not as nutritious as ewe’s milk, more volume (about one third) must be fed to lambs. Milk from the colored breeds is better because it is higher in fat.

Though Johne’s disease is not as common in sheep and goats as it is in cattle, it is advisable to get cow colostrum from a herd that has tested Johne’s-free.

Frozen colostrum should be thawed slowly in a warm water bath. Do not use direct heat or this will destroy the antibodies. It is best to freeze colostrum in small quantities because once frozen colostrum is thawed, it cannot be re-frozen. Frozen colostrum can be stored for up to 12 months without losing its antibodies, whereas fresh colostrum can only be refrigerated for a week before quality declines.

There are numerous commercial colostrum products on the market. Be sure to read the labels of these products carefully. Most of these products do not contain sufficient quantities of antibodies. They are nutritious and should be fed if no other source of colostrum is available, but they cannot replace high quality colostrum.

There are a few cattle products on the market which are “true” colostrum replacers or substitutes. When fed, they are able to raise the blood concentration level of antibodies to the species standard. Lamb or kid milk replacer is never a substitute for colostrum.

Diseases Transmitted Via Colostrum

Some diseases are transmitted from the dam to the offspring via the colostrum and milk. Both ovine progressive pneumonia (OPP) and caprine arthritic encephalitis (CAE) are transmitted in this manner. These diseases are very similar. Lambs that consume colostrum from a CAE-positive doe can test positive for OPP. Similarly, a kid that consumes colostrum from an OPP-positive ewe can test positive for CAE.

To prevent the transmission of either disease from positive dams to offspring, the offspring should not be allowed to nurse or consume colostrum from positive dams. They should be fed pasteurized colostrum or cow colostrum. The bacteria that causes Johne’s disease can also be transmitted through colostrum, though it is not the primary mode of transmission.

University of Maryland Cooperative Extension

Wild and Wooly

Volume 6, Issue 1 – Spring 2007 (formerly the Maryland Sheep and Goat Producer)

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