The Importance of Colostrum Management

Dr. Cassandra Plummer, DVM, Small Ruminant Veterinarian, Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine

As we find breeding season winding to a close it is time to start making preparations for lambing season to begin. When preparing for lambing, one thing to consider is your plan for colostrum management. How are you going to get colostrum into your lambs? What if a ewe doesn’t have colostrum? How will you handle orphan lambs or bottle lambs? All of these things need to be considered prior to the start of lambing.

To start out with, what is colostrum? Colostrum is defined as the first milking after lambing and contains high levels of antibodies to provide a source of immunity to the lamb. All lambs are born without a functional immune system and it takes about 30 days for their immune system to become fully functional. During that time, they rely on the antibodies from their dam that they receive through colostrum to help protect them from infections. During the first 24 hours of life the lamb is able to absorb antibodies from the intestinal tract, however the absorption starts to decline after about 12 hours. After the initial 24 hours, the intestinal tract no longer allows absorption of antibodies. Without colostrum being consumed during the first 24 hours, the lamb will have very little immune function, and therefore will be highly susceptible to infections. As you can see, colostrum plays a vital role in the health of your newborn lambs.

Nature’s method for a lamb to get colostrum is to suckle the colostrum from their dam. There are several important things to think about here. Is the lamb able to suckle? Is it able to stand and find the teat? Is there colostrum in the udder? Do the teats work? Another thing to check is if there are plugs in the ends of the teats. In some ewes there are plugs that form in the ends of the teats to help prevent the colostrum from leaking out prior to lambing. Sometimes these plugs can be hard for the newborn lamb to remove via suckling. It is a good practice when you have a ewe that has just lambed, to check her udder, make sure there is colostrum in the udder and strip a couple drops out of each teat to make sure that there are no plugs present and that the teats are functional. Also, as we increase prolificacy and see a higher number of triplets and quads, we need to consider if the ewe has enough colostrum for all of her lambs. With a set of triplets or quads, you may need to consider pulling 1-2 lambs for bottle raising, as well as to ensure adequate colostrum intake for all the lambs. Not all ewes will be able to produce enough colostrum to supply 3 or 4 lambs. Then the next step is going to be to observe the lamb for suckling and making sure that it is filling its belly.

If you have determined that a lamb is unable or unwilling to suckle its dam, then you may need to intervene to ensure that that lamb gets adequate colostrum. First we need to consider where we are going to get the colostrum from. We have several possible sources to consider. The best source of colostrum is from the lamb’s ewe. If the issue is a weak lamb that is unable to suckle or stand, then consider milking the ewe out for some colostrum and feeding that to the lamb. If the ewe’s colostrum supply is the issue then we will need to consider a colostrum donor. When looking at a colostrum donor, your best donor will be older animals that have lambed previously because they will produce higher quality colostrum than nulliparous ewes. Another thing to consider is the health status of your donor. There are several diseases that can be spread through colostrum such as OPP, Johne’s, and mycoplasma. Therefore, if you know the health status of your ewes, it is important to select a colostrum donor that is negative for these diseases if possible. If you do not have access to ewe colostrum, then goat or cow colostrum are good alternatives. If you have a dairy down the road, they may be willing to give you some colostrum from their cows or goats. With cow or goat colostrum, you do still need to be concerned about disease transmission. Disease’s such as Johne’s disease can be transmitted to sheep through cow or goat colostrum. In regards to disease transmission, there are heat treatment protocols for colostrum that are practiced in some cow and goat dairies. Heat treatment of colostrum deceases the risk of disease transmission through colostrum and may be something to consider in valuable animals with any donor colostrum whether ewe, goat, or cow colostrum.

Once you have colostrum, we need to consider colostrum storage if the colostrum is not going to be used immediately. Colostrum can be stored in a standard refrigerator if it is going to be used within 24 hours. If it is going to be over 24 hours before it is used, then it is recommended to store colostrum in the freezer. Prior to freezing, colostrum should be double-bagged in freezer bags and labeled with the donor’s ID, date of collection, and any disease status information that you have. Once frozen, colostrum can be stored in the freezer for up to 1 year. When feeding colostrum to a newborn, it is recommended to warm the colostrum to body temperature. Therefore, stored colostrum will need to be warmed prior to feeding. The recommended method to thaw frozen colostrum and warm colostrum is to place the bags or bottles in lukewarm water. Do not heat colostrum in the microwave or use hot water. These methods will destroy all of the important antibodies in the colostrum.

Now that we have colostrum and have it warmed up, we need to consider how to get that colostrum into the lamb. The best method to get the colostrum into the lamb, aside from suckling from their dam, is via a bottle. The act of suckling increases the antibody absorption. There are several different lamb nipples available and each lamb has their preferences. We find that that the Prichard nipples are the nipples they are most likely to suckle, but if the lamb won’t suckle from a Prichard nipple it is worth trying another style nipple. Ideally we want to get 10% body weight of colostrum into a lamb in the first 12-24 hours. Therefore for a 10 pound lamb, we would want to get approximately 16 fl. oz. of colostrum into them in the first 12-24 hours. Of course this needs to be spread out over several feedings. While the bottle is best, if a lamb has not taken any colostrum within 2-3 hours of birth, we recommend tubing them with several ounces of colostrum and trying the bottle again at the next feeding.

As you can see, colostrum management is an important factor in the overall health of your lambs. Research has shown that failure of passive transfer from lack of colostrum intake has long-term effects. Research in cows and sheep has shown decreased average daily gains and increased mortality in feedlots associated with failure of passive transfer. Ensuring adequate colostrum intake in your lambs will increase the overall health of your lambs and the added work will pay off with lots of healthy lambs.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the Dec. 2008 Lamb & Wool newsletter. Due to the importance of colostrum and the completeness of the article it is worthy of re-printing.

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