Interview: Sarah Bolt on colostrum hygiene and handling

In the second part of our two-part interview, LifeStart sat down with Sarah Bolt, Knowledge Exchange Manager for AHDB (British Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board) Dairy, to discuss the importance of colostrum hygiene and essential tips for proper colostrum handling

LifeStart: Why is hygiene so important with colostrum? And, what are the possible consequences of not having good colostrum hygiene?

Ms. Bolt: Feeding colostrum is the first way to potentially expose calves to pathogens. With the gut wall "open" to absorb antibodies, it is also "open" to pathogens. Several studies have shown that high levels of bacteria in colostrum actually reduce the uptake of antibodies. Colostrum can be contaminated at any point in the collection, handling, storage or feeding process. All should be aware that even a tiny amount of bacterial contamination can soon become an issue. As colostrum is nutrient dense, bacteria rapidly multiply in colostrum, doubling almost every 20 minutes.

LifeStart: What are some of the tips you recommend to ensure proper colostrum hygiene?

Ms. Bolt: Hygiene starts with you. Hands and clothes should be clean when harvesting or feeding colostrum. Cow hygiene is also important. A pre-milking teat disinfectant should be used, and each teat stripped out before harvesting colostrum. If a calf is left to suckle the cow, faeces is often ingested from the cows' coat as well as the udder, snatch calving (removing calves as soon as possible from their dam) ought to be considered for high Johnes risk animals.

Milking equipment used to harvest the colostrum should be clean and you should avoid equipment used for high SCC (somatic cell count) cows as this will contain high levels of bacteria. The colostrum should be fed immediately or, alternatively, refrigerated or frozen.

Refrigerated (<40C) colostrum can be stored in covered containers for up to 24 hours. If colostrum needs to be stored for longer than this, it must be frozen. Frozen colostrum can be stored for up to a year. It is ideally stored in sealable plastic bags, stored flat with a large surface area so they can be defrosted quickly. The bags should be labelled with a date, cow ID (important if a cow is later diagnosed as a high Johnes risk) and colostrum quality (as measured using your Brix refractometer or colostrometer).

Pasteurising colostrum will reduce the bacteria load. This allows it to be stored for longer. Although, of course, you do need to still refrigerate or freeze after pasteurising. Whichever means of storage is used, one will need to warm the colostrum (to 40 - 420 C) before feeding. This is best done using a water bath. The temperature of the water bath should not exceed 500 C. A microwave should never be used to warm colostrum as the antibodies will lose their natural qualities.

Feeding equipment is another source of bacterial contamination and should be scrupulously cleaned and dried after every use. To remove milk residues, a wash cycle similar to that of washing your parlour is required: rinse (not hot water, as this will "cook on" the milk residues), soak in chlorinated alkaline detergent, scrub/wash, and a final rinse with acid sanitiser before leaving to dry. If you are unsure of how good your hygiene practice is, a sample of the "as fed" colostrum can be sent away for testing for coliform levels.

LifeStart: What has your experience been in terms of helping farmers understand the importance of quality colostrum and colostrum hygiene for their calves?

Ms. Bolt: Over the years I have run many meetings in which I discussed colostrum management. I can fill a whole meeting and more just on the 3 Q's alone – "Quantity, Quality, Quickly." Unfortunately, as over the years there has been so much conflicting advice on the subject, many have not known what the best practices are. After these sessions, farmers understand the evidence behind the messages and can go home to make the small changes that can have far-reaching positive consequences. I am so pleased when farmers tell me about what they have changed on-farm and the kinds of differences those changes make for their businesses. Changes in "Quantity" and "Quality" are easily addressed on-farm. However, getting colostrum into calves within 2 hours - "Quickly" still poses a challenge for overnight calvings and finding a workable solution still eludes many.

LifeStart: Is there anything else you would like to add on the subject?

Ms. Bolt: Heifer calves are the future of our herds. We don't get a second chance at getting it right with them. Attention to detail and time taken to get it right from the beginning pays dividends over the lifetime of the animal. In fact, time and money that can be recouped many times over. My final piece of advice is that calves need patience. If you don't have enough patience, find someone who does, and pay them to do the calf rearing for you!

Want to learn how to put this into practice?

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