Colostrum therapy for diarrhea in preweaned calves

Havelah Carter, MSc, Dr. Michael Steele, Associate Professor, and Dr. Dave Renaud, Assistant Professor, University of Guelph

The primary cause of death and disease in preweaned calves are digestive diseases, specifically, diarrhea. It is common to use antimicrobials to treat diarrhea, however, this method can pose several health and production disadvantages.

When combining the diminished immune function caused by antimicrobial use, the threat of resistance and the general concern surrounding antimicrobial use in food animals by the general consumer, there is motivation to search for alternative treatment options for diarrhea in young calves. Bovine colostrum is rich in antibodies, hormones, growth factors and nutrients naturally tailored to promote calf health and growth. Its beneficial qualities may be an attractive solution for the treatment of calf diarrhea.

Photo credit: Havelah Carter

A study focusing on using colostrum as a therapy for diarrhea in preweaned calves was performed at a commercial veal operation in Southwestern Ontario during the summer of 2021. During a six-week period, 107 calves were enrolled in the study.

Enrolment occurred twice per day once a calf had diarrhea. When enrolled, calves were randomly assigned to get one of three treatments:

1) Control (CON) group with eight feedings over four days of milk replacer

2) Short term colostrum (STC) group with four feedings over two days where a mix of milk replacer and colostrum replacer was given, followed by four feedings over two days of milk replacer

3) Long-term colostrum (LTC) group with eight feedings over four days of a mix of milk replacer and colostrum replacer

Several variables were recorded throughout the study, such as serum Immunoglobulin G concentrations through blood samples, fecal scores and samples, respiratory parameters, weights, and milk refusals. These were all used to complete statistical analysis to determine differences between the treatment groups.

Feeding colostrum for eight consecutive feedings over four days (LTC) had several significant, positive results. LTC calves experienced a significant decreased time to diarrhea resolution compared to CON calves.

There were also several contributing factors that affected the days to resolution of diarrhea: severity of diarrhea upon enrolment (fecal score at enrolment) increased the days to resolution, while a higher body weight at enrolment and longer time spent at the veal facility prior to enrolment decreased the duration of the bout of diarrhea.

Morbidity and mortality were both decreased in the LTC treatment group. Additionally, LTC calves had a significantly higher average daily gain (ADG) compared to CON calves. STC calves showed no significant results proposing that this treatment must be fed for more than four feedings.

These results show that feeding a low dose of colostrum over an extended period can effectively minimize the days to resolution of diarrhea and improve ADG in preweaned calves.

Future research on this topic could evaluate the most effective and economic concentration and duration of this treatment to improve practically and profitability for producers.

References available upon request.