Just as I sat down to write this post, my phone rang.
John said, “Can you thaw out some colostrum for me? There is some in the deep freeze on the porch.”
So, I stepped away from my beloved computer to grab the bag and start the easy thawing process.
But wait, what the heck is colostrum? Why in the world does John need some at 8 AM on a Friday? And, why do we keep it stored in our deep freeze?
Well, there’s two ways to understand colostrum. First, my parents explanation to me as a kid. And, secondly, the explanation farm kids get from their college professors when they attend college and study animal science.
Both definitions are equally fascinating if you ask me.
So, lets rewind to my childhood. One of my Mom’s cows has just had a calf, it is very cold outside and the little calf doesn’t want to get up and nurse. Eventually, we make the decision to bring the cow and calf up out of the pasture and into the barn. We decide to thaw out some of our purchased colostrum to feed to this new calf from a bottle. Then, he’ll have the energy to nurse from his mother.
I ask my Mom, “What’s that?”
She says, “Well, colostrum is the first milk that a cow provides to her baby. It is the very first drinks that he will take when he nurses in the first two days of his life. This milk is very, very important – so important that it gets a special name: colostrum. The cow only has this milk inside of her right after the baby is born. It is full of special nutrients and antibodies that help jump start the calf. It gives him energy and helps make him healthy.”
“Hum. So, where did you get this frozen colostrum?” I ask.
“Well,” she says, “We can buy it from dairy farms. If we have a cow that loses her calf for some reason, we can milk her by hand and save and freeze the colostrum in case another calf will need it. Additionally, powdered colostrum can be purchased from an animal health supplier.”
Now, lets fast forward to college. I’m sitting in an “Introduction to Ruminates” class with a couple hundred other students. (A ruminant is an animal that has four stomachs for food digestion, aka, cattle, sheep and a few others. Fascinating as well.)
The professor talks about the importance of colostrum and these are a few of the bullet points in my notebook:
- Calves are born “agammaglobulinemic” which means they have no antibodies in circulation when they are born
- Antibodies provide natural protection to the calf from diseases
- Colostrum is their only protection from disease until their own immune system develops the ability to respond to disease challenge.
- In general, high quality colostrum is thick, syrupy, and yellow to tan in color.
- Colostrum is high in energy, fat, vitamins A and D, white blood cells, and immunoglobulins (antibodies that prevent infection).
- Baby calves need 2 quarts within the first 6 hours from birth and an additional 2 quarts by 12 hours of age.
Can I just say this is a really beautiful concept? The babies are born absolutely helpless to defending disease and their mother’s milk provides the protection their little bodies need.
Every time a Mama cow’s immune system has defended her from a disease…it remembers how to beat that one. All that disease beating knowledge is passed to the calf in the form of “immunoglobins” — AMAZING!
Now, you know how professors can draaaagggggg onnnnnnn….the lecture on colostrum doesn’t end there. There’s much more to learn about properly thawing colostrum, properly freezing it, how long the antibodies can live while refrigerated, how much the calves must get in the first 12 hours, the long-term health effects of not receiving colostrum. ON & ON. If you want to read a full report, this one from Minnesota Extension is great.
You might hear colostrum called by some less-scientific names:
- Yellow Gold
- First Milk
- Nature’s Ultimate Energy Drink (I just made that one up)
So, that’s some serious animal science right off the farm!
John just stopped by the house…he decided he doesn’t need the colostrum after all. Never a dull moment. The calf must have gotten up and nursed all by him self. Now, I need to double check my notes on proper colostrum refrigeration after thawing!
PS: Wanna hear something else crazy? Human mothers have colostrum, too!