How to Collect Colostrum

Colostrum for Foals: The Magic Milk

Photo: Robin Duncan Photography

By Horse Journals

Winter snow may still blanket the ground, but foaling season will be here before we know it. If you have a pregnant mare in your barn, plan ahead to collect and freeze some of her colostrum — that all-important first milk — so you have it on hand if a foal is born without access to this essential liquid.

Colostrum is produced within the first 24 hours after a mare has foaled and the best quality colostrum is available in the first eight hours post-foaling. Unlike other species that pass antibodies and immunoglobulins across the placenta into the fetus, the foal’s immune system does not kick-start until it feeds on colostrum during the first 24 hours of life. Newborn foals are able to absorb the life-giving antibodies and nutrients for that first day; after that time colostrum production decreases and the foal’s digestive tract changes so the antibodies can no longer be absorbed.
Every foaling season, foals born without access to this life-giving liquid. Sometimes a mare dies while giving birth. Perhaps a mare has rejected her foal, or leaked milk and colostrum before the foal was born. If the foal is too weak to stand and nurse, the mare can be milked and colostrum provided to the foal through a bottle or tube.

How do you go about collecting this magic milk? First, allow the newborn foal to properly nurse several times (assuming that he can) and wait until he is resting, ideally about eight hours after birth. Then follow these basic steps:
#1    Wash your hands, and then gently wash the mare’s udder with warm water. Have a clean, reasonably wide plastic container or stainless steel mixing bowl on hand to collect the milk.

#2    Calmly approach the mare, holding the container in your left hand (or right hand if you are left-handed). Put the container under her udder, and gently put your right thumb and forefinger on her teat.

#3    Push the milk bag upward to trigger the flow, the way the foal would, then gently squeeze and pull down on the teat, causing the milk to spray into the container.

#4    Stop collecting when the pressure on the mare’s udder is relieved, or when you have collected between eight to ten ounces, whichever comes first. Two collections are usually enough. You should not collect more than a pint of milk, or you risk depleting the mare’s colostrum supply, preventing her own newborn from getting an adequate amount.

#5    Filter the colostrum prior to freezing with a kitchen filter or cheesecloth. Seal the container, and label it with the name of the mare, the date, and the amount of time since foaling.

Freeze the supply immediately to keep as many antibodies intact as possible, and it can remain frozen for up to two years. Now alert your local equine veterinarians and colostrum bank (such as, that you have a supply available in case of emergency. If the time comes when you need to use the colostrum, defrost it at room temperature, or by running cold water over it. Do NOT microwave it, or place it in warm water, or you will kill the antibodies.

While a horse owner in need will gladly accept any offering of colostrum you have available, you may want to get the colostrum tested to find out what antibody levels it contains, and to test for anti-Aa or anti-Qa antibodies, which can result in an uncommon colostrum cross-match abnormality called neonatal isoerythrolysis (or jaundiced foals).

Main Article Photo: Robin Duncan Photography

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2011 issue of Canadian Horse Journal - Central & Atlantic Edition.

Canadian Horse Journal e-newsletter sign-up Equine Express e-newsletter sign-up