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The formation of colostrum in the pregnant cow is initiated about 3-4 weeks before birth when a limited amount of fluid containing small amounts of growth factors and other transforming substances is released into the developing mammary tissue. The process is regulated by a series of other hormones, one of the most important being progesterone, which attaches to special receptors on the cells lining the mammary gland and prevents them from secreting any fluid into the gland during most of the pregnancy. About two weeks before birth, these substances influence the appearance of specific receptors on the surface of the cells lining the mammary gland that will facilitate the transfer of materials from the mother’s blood into the gland, including the immunoglobulins (antibodies) necessary to convey passive immunity to the calf after birth and various hormones and growth promoters required to induce and support development of the newborn calf.
About 2 days before birth, the hormonal balance begins to shift, initiating the production of copious secretions and switching on the ability of cells in the mammary tissue to synthesize various substances, including lactose. At birth, when the placenta is eliminated, progesterone levels fall dramatically in the mother and its inhibitory control of the secretions is removed. Simultaneously, a protein-based substance develops in the cells lining the mammary gland that essentially blocks any further transfer of substances from the mother’s blood into the gland. The composition of the fluid in the mammary gland at birth is that of true colostrum and reflects the functional changes that have occurred in the gland up to that time; it a) has a high protein concentration, most of which is IgG; b) contains the highest concentration of growth promoters, other hormones and additional metabolically active substances; c) is low in lactose content; and d) is rich in milk fat.
After birth, one of the most influential factors on the composition of subsequent secretions is physical removal of the fluid from the mammary gland. The removal of even small quantities of fluid triggers the production of copious amounts of secretion from the cells in the mammary gland. Since the transfer of biologically-active substances from the mother’s blood is blocked, replacement fluid will contain primarily substances synthesized by cells in the mammary gland and, thus, will be of a different composition than the fluid originally contained in the mammary gland at birth.
The fluid expressed at this time is known as “transitional milk”. This is further complicated by the fact that the basic composition of the colostrum changes after birth due to maternal re-absorption and does so rapidly beginning at six hours, as can be seen from the table below. Thus, the highest quality bovine colostrum, containing the maximum concentration of biologically active substances, is collected in a single milking during the first six hours after birth.
True colostrum can do many wonderful things for a depleted body; make sure you are getting the “Real” thing!