Thoughts on Colostrum and Colostrum Substitutes

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Dan Morrical
Professor, Animal Science
Iowa State University

bottle lambingIt happens to all of us.  We have a ewe that drops lambs with a hard bag and no colostrum and you do not have a frozen source.  Will colostrum replacements work to help save the lambs? Yes, they will work. Are they as good as ewe colostrum from your farm? No, however the odds of a lamb not surviving to weaning are five times higher if he has poor passive immunity from poor colostrum quality or quantity intake.

There are not a lot of sheep colostrum substitutes available and in general are not stocked at the local farm store. Can one use cow-based sources? Yes, they will work. Those sources come as a treatment for one calf and provide roughly 90-100 grams of immunoglobulins (IGs).  Research indicates that lamb IG levels increase with colostrum intake up 210 ml per kg birth weight.  In English that means lambs need three ounces per pound of birth weight to maximize their serum immunoglobulin levels.  In general it has been recommended a minimum of 10 percent of bodyweight intake of colostrum. For a 10 pound lamb that equates to 16 ounces of colostrum or four, four ounce feedings in the first 24 hours of life and ideally by 12 hours of age with feeding occurring at zero, four, eight and 12 hours after being born. That level would be roughly half of maximum IG serum levels.

I discussed how much IGs lambs need with Dr. Howard Tyler, who does neonatal calf management research. The minimum IGs for calves is 100 grams for a 90 pound calf.  If we use body weight as our conversion factor lambs would need 1.1 grams per pound of bodyweight. In general lambs need 8 to 15 grams of IGs from colostrum substitutes depending on size.  I also did some reading in scientific journals. Moderate-aged ewes produce the most colostrum and the most antibodies in their colostrum. Lambs should have an IG level of 16-24 mg/ml. One interesting article revealed that feeding super high levels of iodine, 5 PPM, can drastically reduce antibody absorption by lambs. This indicates once again that if some is good, more may not be better.  Too much of anything can get us into trouble. 

My colleagues indicated that serum or cow colostrum derived colostrum substitutes worked equally well if manufacturered properly. 

It is critical for lamb survival that all lambs receive adequate colostrum. Research data indicates that ewes produce about .75 pound of colostrum on average. Ewes in average or above body condition will produce more colostrum. It is also critical to maintain a healthy tissue to insure maximum colostrum available for the ewe’s lambs.  Prevention of mastitis is a key at lambing and weaning during the previous production cycle to insure udder tissue health and maximum milk synthesis.  Lambs from large litters (3, 4 or more) may not consume adequate colostrum to maximize serum antibody levels.  These lambs may benefit from supplementation with a colostrum substitute or extra colostrum feeding from other sources.

Date of Publication: 
April, 2015