Back From the Vet: The What and Why of Colostrum in Goats
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By Dr Katie Estill, DVM Raising goat kids can be a rewarding experience. However, caring for kids with an illness can be quite trying. If you have had a sick goat kid, then you have likely had your veterinarian ask you about colostrum consumption. Colostrum consumption is essential for health in kids and other large animal neonates.
Mammals can transfer antibodies, or infection-fighting proteins, to their young; this kind of transfer is called passive immunity. In neonatal mammals, these proteins can be transferred across the placenta while still in utero and through colostrum or first milk. Ruminant babies — kids, lambs, and calves — are all born with complete immune systems but without these antibodies. Unlike human children, ruminants receive no transfer of antibodies through the placenta. Consumption of colostrum is essential for ruminants to obtain life-saving antibodies.
Kids and other ruminants are born with intestines ready to absorb these antibodies. The lining of the intestine is more permeable to the large antibodies when kids are born. The ability to absorb antibodies decreases as kids age. After 24 hours, kids cannot effectively absorb significant amounts of colostrum. Ensuring that kids obtain colostrum on their first day, preferably the first hours of life, ensures they get the life-saving antibodies.
Colostrum is the nutrient-dense first milk made by dams. However, they don’t only create it the day the kid is born. Does begin making this essential milk in the last several weeks of pregnancy. To ensure that does produce colostrum in appropriate quantity and quality, carefully manage the pregnancy. Overly fat or overly thin does can have decreased production. In animals with multiples, a sufficient amount of colostrum is especially imperative. To mitigate certain diseases, it is also essential that the first milk contains enough amounts of life-saving antibodies. Booster vaccinations at least 3–4 weeks before kidding ensure that does have appropriate antibodies in their colostrum.
Ensuring colostrum consumption can be as simple as observing a good latch by a kid on a doe with good milk production. Assess a doe’s udder annually and before and at kidding to ensure health and normal milk production. Many conditions can affect udder health and decrease milk production. Identifying does with problems can ensure you have a plan in place for kids to receive adequate colostrum. Milking a small amount at kidding can provide visual assurance that the doe makes appropriate milk. Colostrum should be thick and yellow. Kids should be up and nursing within the first half hour of life. If they cannot rise and nurse in that half hour, intervene to ensure timely consumption.
Intervention can be as simple as milking the doe and bottle-feeding if kids cannot nurse. Kids may require further intervention, such as tube-feeding, if they cannot suckle. If the doe is not producing sufficiently, owners must give another source of colostrum. If many does are kidding, owners can give fresh colostrum from another doe in the herd.
Kids can receive previously frozen goat colostrum if fresh is unavailable. Owners can milk from a doe with a good supply and only a single kid and store it in the freezer for up to one year. Since you must use it promptly after thawing, freeze it in single-feeding amounts. Feed kids roughly 10% of their body weight, or about 50ml of colostrum for every kilogram. Freezing milk in ice cube trays can be one way to freeze it in small quantities. Knowing that there is a doe in the herd with poor milk production before kidding can ensure that frozen colostrum is stored for when those kids are born.
The difficulty comes when a kid has no fresh or frozen colostrum available. Most studies indicate commercial replacement powders are significantly less effective than fresh or appropriately stored frozen colostrum. If only a commercial product is available, use a goat-specific product, as all-species or bovine products have different nutritional compositions.
Assess kids with questionable colostrum consumption sooner rather than later, so kids with inadequate consumption can receive oral supplementation before their intestines change. Tests for adequate consumption involve blood collection to assess for protein indicators. Common tests use a Brix refractometer, an optical refractometer, and testing for the protein GGT. Low values indicate a failure of antibody transfer or passive transfer. Contact your herd veterinarian if there is a kid in question to pursue testing and intervention if necessary. Kids older than 24 hours will no longer be able to absorb oral colostrum. In these cases, veterinarians implement more aggressive treatment. Plasma transfusions can increase antibody concentrations. Broad-spectrum antibiotics may also be indicated due to the increased risk of infection with failure of passive transfer.
Colostrum consumption is essential for healthy kids. Monitoring kidding and having an intervention plan when difficulties arise will decrease the necessity of aggressive treatments such as transfusions. If there is doubt regarding colostrum consumption, test within the first 12 hours of life. Early intervention is imperative for a good outcome.
- A Argüello, N Castro, M.J Zamorano, A Castroalonso, J Capote, Passive transfer of immunity in kid goats fed refrigerated and frozen goat colostrum and commercial sheep colostrum, Small Ruminant Research, Volume 54, Issue 3, 2004, Pages 237-241, ISSN 0921-4488, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.smallrumres.2003.11.008.(https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0921448803003638)N.
- Castro, J. Capote, R.M. Bruckmaier & A. Argüello (2011) Management effects on colostrogenesis in small ruminants: a review, Journal of Applied Animal Research, 39:2, 85-93, DOI: 10.1080/09712119.2011.581625 (https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09712119.2011.581625)