Key considerations when selecting colostrum supplementation

When a ewe’s colostrum is not available or is in short supply the delivery of a well-timed, balanced, nutritious colostrum supplement can be the difference between life and death, a healthy profit and a small margin.

And its impact extends way beyond the first few crucial hours. Quality ingredients in a well balanced formulation have an immediate impact – keeping the lamb alive and kick-starting its metabolism – and the best colostrum supplements keep on sustaining and supporting the lamb in the hours, days and weeks that follow to help it gain weight more efficiently and suffer fewer incidences of ill health.

Ovine colostrum is about far more than initial immunity; it provides metabolic energy for heat production, plus minerals and vitamins for robust early growth and prebiotics which prepare the gut for efficient digestion. It’s more than the first milk – it’s fundamentally different.

Lambs, piglets and calves only receive antibodies through colostrum; there is no transfer across the placenta. The lining of a lamb’s stomach is more porous during the first few hours of life, allowing the larger protein molecules that constitute immunoglobulins to pass directly into the bloodstream. In this way colostrum provides immediate, passive immunity to infections that threaten lambs from the moment they are born.

Bovine colostrum

Colostrum from other cows and ewes on-farm has advantages. It can provide specific antibodies to support against the challenges within your flock.

However, sourcing colostrum on-farm has its drawbacks. It takes time and effort to collect, keep and prepare, assuming that you’ve got access to a sufficient number of donor ewes or cows. It also takes some planning to ensure adequate stocks are in the freezer and a crystal ball to make sure the right amount has been gently thawed in time; proteins are sensitive to heat and break down easily.

There are other drawbacks too when using cattle donors as a source of lamb colostrum. Bovine colostrum has a lower nutritional density than its ovine counterpart, and must be carefully selected to avoid the antibodies present in some cattle that destroy ovine red blood cells, causing severe and often fatal anaemia.

Colostrum supplement

The best commercially available lamb colostrum supplements combine energy, vitamins and minerals with natural bovine colostrums, but differ in their precise formulation. The golden rule is to find one with a balanced formulation that is well engineered – particle size affects the way a colostrum supplement mixes, flows through the teat and is absorbed.

A quality brand will be formulated using bovine colostrums that have been selected to avoid the ovine red blood cell-destroying antibodies while providing the right balance of immunoglobulins (Igs) for passive immunity.

Igs are an area where more isn’t necessarily better – getting a balance is key. To provide passive immunity three types of immunoglobulins work together: IgG, IgM and IgA. To optimise a lamb’s passive immunity a balance of all three is needed – too little of any one can see a shortfall in its potential, while an excess is unlikely to be absorbed.

Lambs are born with special reserves of brown fat, but they need energy quickly in a highly digestible and convertible form. Look for a combination of carbohydrates and easily absorbed fats to deliver a balance of quick- and slow-release energy.

Vitamins and minerals

Vitamins play an important part in essential life functions. For example, vitamin B12 is needed for the central nervous system and vitamin D3 is essential in the absorption of calcium. But vitamins do not perform these functions in isolation and have interdependent relationships with other components of the formulation.

Vitamin D3 maintains the balance of calcium and phosphates for the mineralisation of teeth and bones. The balance is very important; a colostrum supplement with vitamin D3, but without sufficient calcium or phosphates, will be less effective. Sodium, potassium and phosphorus similarly work together in nerve cell function.

Some essential elements are tricky for a young lamb to absorb; copper, zinc, iron and manganese all benefit from chelation, a process that improves their bioavailability. But not all brands use chelated trace elements, so refer to the label.


A healthy gut is the foundation for weight gain. Colostrum supplements that include prebiotics will promote the development of necessary bacteria by providing a suitable environment and the raw materials for multiplication. Many changes occur in a lamb’s gut in the 48 hours after birth and colostrum plays a central role.

Nick Blayney, vet, The Arden Forest Veterinary Group, Warwickshire

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