On-farm tool for measuring quality of colostrum for dairy calves

Recent research indicates that the Brix refractometer is an effective tool for measuring quality of bovine colostrum on farms.

Feeding adequate amounts of high quality colostrum as soon as possible after birth is critical to raising healthy calves. Colostrometers have been reliable tools used on farms to evaluate quality by determining the level of antibodies or immunoglobulins (IgG) in the colostrum.

Recent research has evaluated the effectiveness of the Brix refractometer as another on-farm tool for measuring colostrum quality. This method is based on the angle of light refracted or “bent” as it encounters a liquid sample. The components of the liquid influence the angle at which the light is refracted. The Brix refractometer has been used in the food industry to measure sugar content in fruits, vegetables, maple syrup and honey. It also has been used to evaluate the quality of horse colostrum during the past decade.

Tools used to measure colostrum quality on farms should be easy to use, affordable, adaptable to farm conditions and provide rapid and accurate results. The Brix refractometer meets these criteria, requires only a few drops of milk and can be used on colostrum of any temperature. In contrast, colostrometers should be used with milk at 72 degrees F for accurate results.

Two types of Brix refractometers are available:

  • Optical: view results through an eye piece. Sometimes the line of demarcation on the scale may be fuzzy, requiring some interpretation by the person using the instrument.
  • Digital: displays a specific number or score based on the angle of the refracted light. The tool is more expensive, but easier to use and read.

Research has indicated that colostrum at a Brix score of 22% or higher is good quality for newborn calves. The table below suggests how to use colostrum based on the Brix score.

Brix Score

Quality Level


> 22


Use for first feeding



Use for 2nd or 3rd feeding

< 17


Use for calves over 24 hrs old

The Brix refractometer also can be used for quality control of other aspects of calf feeding.

  • Consistent levels of total solids when using waste milk to feed calves. If the total solids content of waste milk is below the desired level, milk replacer can be added.
  • Adequate mixing of milk replacer. The concentration of total solids in milk replacer can be evaluated at feeding to ensure that the milk replacer powder has been thoroughly mixed into solution.

The goal of calf raisers is to provide adequate intake of high quality colostrum as soon as possible after birth. Two tools are now available for on-farm assessment of colostrum quality. Ensure that calves receive adequate amounts of antibodies to get them off to a good start.

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