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The Right Angle on Colostrum

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By:  Dr. Kimberly Vonnahme

Spring! The frost is behind us and new life is budding forth! One beautiful day in between the last snow bursts here in Fargo, we used an ultrasound to see which ewes at Harvest Hope Farm were pregnant. I don’t think I will ever tire of seeing little lambs sleeping, spinning, and stretching while they are still in their mothers—So blessed that we have the technology of ultrasound to visualize what is happening within the ewe’s uterus. For those of you that know me, you know I could bore you to tears talking about the powers of the placenta (the lamb’s lifeline while inside the uterus)! No, for all the wonderful things the placenta does, there is one thing that placentas of our livestock species can’t do: that is pass along the mother’s immunity to their offspring. Farmers and ranchers understand that to get their livestock young off to a good start, those piglets, calves, and lambs NEED their mother’s first milk: colostrum.


So what is colostrum? As I mentioned above, it is the dam’s first milk that she excretes. Colostrum has an especially high amount of bioactive compounds compared to the milk the mother will make just a few days later. It is imperative that the newborn lamb consume colostrum by 6 hours after birth, or he will not get the maximal benefits of this rich food that will protect him and give him a good start to life. If he doesn’t get this first drink, there is a good chance he will die. Good mother ewes will nudge their little lambs to get up and nurse soon after birth, but farmers visit the barn frequently during lambing time to make sure no lamb is falling behind.


What is in colostrum that makes it so vital for life? First, colostrum contains large molecules called immunoglobulins, or antibodies. There are different types of immunoglobulins, but they have a common function. Just as the immunoglobulins are protecting adult animals from disease, mothers can pass the antibodies they have made by their immune systems, to their babies via colostrum. We call this passive immunity: immunity that is immediate but will slowly wear away in a few weeks. Luckily, the little lamb’s immune system will start making his own antibodies as he investigates his new environment, as well as from any vaccinations he receives. Small exposures to disease organisms cause his own immune system to develop antibodies, or his active immunity. As passive immunity wanes, active immunity grows—a beautiful change of protection. Active immunity is longer lasting and will continue to be enhanced as the lamb ages. But we as caregivers help his immune system battle diseases by routine vaccinations.


Other factors in colostrum that are essential for our newborns includes fat, protein, sugars, and growth factors. While the fat, protein, and sugars give energy to the lamb, the growth factors help mature his intestines. That little gastrointestinal tract (gut) is amazing, and while he will be surviving on mother’s milk for the next few months, ultimately, he will be a grass grazing machine. The colostrum will help that gut start maturing into the gut it needs to become to help that lamb be the best ruminant it can be!


Lastly, colostrum also has a mild laxative effect, encouraging the passing of the baby's first stool, which is called meconium. Fancy word for the first poo, huh? As with all babies, making sure the digestive tract works is important to observe, and while we don’t have diapers to change on our lambs, finding the meconium in the straw, and full bellies on our lambs, are sure signs that they are nursing ok.


Next time you come out to Harvest Hope Farm, you may see new lambs running around. Those thrifty little lambs have been developing since Christmas: first inside their mothers being nourishing by the placenta, and then nourished by the mammary gland. Gotta love our mothers!!! The power of mother’s milk is udderly amazing!

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