Michael Metzger, Michigan State University Extension Educator
(Previously published on MSU Extension, Sheep & Goat: February 12,2013)
Colostrum is the key to raising healthy goat kids and lambs.
Ensuring goat kids and lambs get enough colostrum at birth is imperative to getting them off to a good start.
One of the most important functions of colostrum (first milk) is to provide kids and lambs with antibodies (immunoglobulins) that provide passive immunity for the first two months of life. Newborn lambs and kids, like other mammals, are born with no antibodies of their own and rely on those provided by the mother in colostrum for protection.
Protection provided by colostrum starts during pregnancy. Does and ewes must be adequately vaccinated and receive proper nutrition in order to mount an immune response needed to manufacture antibodies for colostrum and remain healthy themselves. Minerals such as selenium, copper, and zinc are vital components of immune function. Newborns are very dependent on copper acquired during the prenatal period since copper levels in milk are poor. Therefore, proper copper nutrition, especially in goats, in gestating females is critical to body stores in newborns. Pregnant animals must be on the farm for at least fourteen days to produce the correct antibodies for their specific kidding/lambing environment to pass on to their offspring.
The antibodies found in colostrum are absorbed whole by the kids and lambs through the lining of the stomach. However, the efficiency with which a newborn can absorb these antibodies declines within just one hour after birth. The ability to absorb antibodies drastically decreases after 12 hours and is essentially gone by 24 hours of age. Therefore, if a newborn doesn’t get colostrum within the first 24 hours of birth, its chances of survival are very slim.
The single most important component to successful transfer of antibodies from mother to offspring is the consumption of sufficient amounts of colostrum. Kids and lambs must consume enough colostrum to provide the immunoglobulins needed for passive immunity. A good rule of thumb would be 8% – 10% of the body weight of the kid/lamb, however it is best to feed according to appetite.
For example if the birth weight was 5 lbs., that would mean that you would need roughly 1/2 lb. of colostrum (5 lbs. x 10%). This translates into about a half of a pint (one pint roughly equals one pound). This is normally not a problem as long as animals accept their offspring and have enough colostrum and teats to feed the litter. However, occasionally you will run into the problem of an animal rejecting her kids/lambs or producing a larger litter than she is capable of nursing effectively. In these cases you will be forced to bottle or tube feed colostrum or risk losing the kids or lambs.
Planning ahead in these situations is critical. Freeze extra colostrum from several healthy older animals (colostrum quality is better in older animals than first timers) to have it on hand. It is important to thaw only the amount of colostrum needed (once thawed you cannot refreeze), thus it is best to freeze colostrum in small quantities. Do not thaw frozen colostrum in the microwave as this will have an adverse effect on the antibodies. Use a warm water bath to thaw frozen colostrum quickly.
Antibodies in colostrum provide kids and lambs with passive immunity for the first few months of their lives. Therefore, it is vitally important that newborns receive adequate amounts of colostrum as soon after birth as possible to ensure survival. The quality of the colostrum will be dependent on how the doe or ewe is managed during pregnancy, especially during the last few weeks.