Bovine colostrum is a sought-after supplement whose growing popularity stems from research on its important contributions to human athletic performance and health: particularly immune support and cellular growth factors.
After finding success as a human supplement, bovine colostrum now joins the equine and canine supplement industries as one of many therapeutic foods that can be fed to horses and dogs. But with its popularity, marketers are seeing a rich opportunity without ever understanding the raw material. Consumers unwittingly purchase colostrum based on price, and on claims. When the supplement isn’t effective, the animal misses out on an important supportive food and the owner suffers the dollars spent.
BioStar introduced our Colostrum-38 supplement nine years ago. At that time in the animal and pet market, bovine colostrum was primarily used for milk replacement in foals and puppies. I spent considerable time researching published studies coming out of Australia and New Zealand about bovine colostrum’s benefits for athletes, particularly how it regulated the immune system and helped with tissue repair.
Grades of bovine colostrum
Colostrum is graded based on its percentage of immunoglobulin G (or simply “IgG”). Immunoglobulins are known as antibodies. They play a critical role in the immune response by recognizing and binding to antigens such as viruses and bacteria. Immunoglobulins are also the principal agents that protect the gut mucosa against pathogenic microorganisms.
There are five classes of immungloblulins and bovine colostrum contains three of them: IgA, IgG, and IgM. The class most prevalent in bovine colostrum is IgG. This immunoglobulin is the major antibody found in blood, lymph fluid, peritoneal fluid and is the key player in the humoral immune response.
The higher the percentage of IgG, the more potent the colostrum.
Think of the IgG number for bovine colostrum as being similar to the CFU number (colony-forming units) given for grading live probiotics. A probiotic with 10 million CFUs per serving is clearly not as strong as a probiotic with 50 million CFUs per serving.
Foal replacement colostrum is 40–45% IgG. BioStar’s Colostrum-38 is 38% IgG. Many of the colostrum products I have seen are 15% IgG. Some companies don’t provide the IgG content on their labels, so the consumer has to make phone calls or send emails to find out what it is. In the case of a few companies, customer service representatives don’t know the answer when asked.
Fifteen percent IgG may be fine for wellness, but a dog or cat with a compromised immune system (or an overactive one such as happens with allergies) needs colostrum with an IgG content considerably higher than 15%.
Ethics of bovine colostrum
Harvesting colostrum from cows who have just given birth raises several ethical questions. Of course, each person has their own concept of what is ethical, and what I find unethical may not be unethical to someone else
Bovine colostrum is harvested when the cow has calved. Some companies take colostrum in the first 6 hours after birth, while others wait 24-48 hours before taking colostrum because they want to ensure that the calf gets the first colostrum of their mother’s milk.
In the US, it’s typical for calves to be separated from their mothers a day or two after birth and raised as veal calves. When I was searching for colostrum, this was one ethical point that I could not support.
Nor could I support buying colostrum from cows that had never seen a blade of grass (let alone daily time spent on pasture) and had been given bovine growth hormone (rBGH) or the biotechnology-created growth hormone bovine somatotropin (rBST).
I could not accept colostrum that had been irradiated — meaning treated by exposure to isotopic radiation. We know irradiated foods can cause health problems in lab animals, including cancers, chromosome abnormalities, and even premature death. Irradiation affects vitamin content of food; particularly vulnerable are vitamins A, E, C, K, B1, B3 and B6, which can be destroyed by irradiation.
In the end I could not find a single US supplier of bovine colostrum that met my ethical criteria.
BioStar’s ethical colostrum
Luckily, we found a small dairy co-operative in Canada that exceeded our ethical needs, including keeping the calves with their mothers for 6-8 months because the quality of the milk and colostrum is so much higher when the cows aren’t stressed.
The colostrum from this co-operative is antibiotic-free, rBGH free, rBST free, and non-irradiated. The colostrum is collected 24-48 hours after birth, and only a small percentage is taken so that the calf has plenty of milk.
It’s interesting to note that when calves stay with their mothers, the cows produce more milk than the calves can consume, and milk of higher quality because the cow is not stressed. In Canada irradiation is not permitted on milk products, so our colostrum is irradiation-free. The cows and calves are pasture-raised and supplemented with alfalfa hay and grain.
Processing of colostrum
High-temperature heat processing can destroy some of the vital components and denature the colostrum. Flash pasteurization and freeze-drying at low temperatures is the best way to preserve colostrum’s vital components. Some companies freeze the colostrum, thaw it, and then freeze-dry it, which can raise the potential for pathogen contamination during the thawing process.
Dosage and milligrams
The lower the IgG percentage, the more milligrams your dog or horse will need. A 400-milligram serving of colostrum with 15% IgG is not enough for animals in acute or chronic immune health situations. You will need to give two or three doses per day or more depending on the weight of the animal if you use low-IgG colostrum. One of the benefits of high-IgG colostrum is that you don’t need to feed a lot to get results.
When purchasing colostrum
- Make sure you know the percentage of IgG in the colostrum you purchase. This information is often found on a company’s website, but if it’s not on the product page or included in the description, let that be a warning sign. High-quality colostrum is defined by high-quantity IgG.
- Find out the ethics of the sourced colostrum. Many companies publish this on their product page, and if you don’t find it there you will need to ask the company a lot of questions.
- How the colostrum is processed is an important key to the effectiveness of its various nutritional components. The descriptor “freeze-dried” may be the result of high-heat processing and then freeze-drying, or freezing and thawing followed by freeze-drying. The best processing for colostrum and its growth factors and nutritional components is low-temperature flash pasteurization followed by freeze-drying.
Colostrum is becoming a commodity item, meaning there are companies who just want to sell some kind of colostrum to make money from unsuspecting consumers. Remember that bovine colostrum’s quality is extremely important for supporting immune challenges and tissue healing in horses and dogs.