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What is Colostrum?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 24 August 2014
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Colostrum is a special substance which is secreted by all female mammals in the last few days of pregnancy and during the first few days of an infant's life. Colostrum is an extremely important part of early nutrition for young animals, and animals which do not receive colostrum in their first days of life can experience health problems. In addition to being an important part of the diet of a young animal, this material is also used in medical research and in traditional medical treatment in some areas of the world.

At first glance, colostrum looks sort of like milk, but it is much thicker, and it has a yellowish to orange tinge. It is extremely rich in protein, minerals, and antibodies, all substances which are important for the development of young animals. Colostrum is also low in fat, because the digestive systems of newborn animals cannot handle high amounts of fat. Because newborns have a very small stomach capacity, colostrum is important, since it is far more rich than milk; to get the same nutrition from regular milk, an infant would have to drink much more, potentially damaging the stomach.

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This rich substance delivers concentrated nutrients to a rapidly developing young body, setting the animal up for a healthy start in life. It also has a mild laxative effect, encouraging the animal to pass stool which helps express the substances which have built up in the body during gestation. After a few days of regular nursing, the breasts begin to produce regular milk, rather than colostrum.

This substance is also referred to as foremilk, first milk, immune milk, or beestings. In cases where an animal is unable to produce colostrum, human caretakers may use colostrum from another animal, or a synthetic version which is closely designed to mimic real colostrum. Without colostrum, an animal could potentially be vulnerable to infection, since it would lack antibodies, and it might experience stunted growth as a result of inadequate nutrition.

Baby animals often nurse within minutes of being born, as anyone who has been present at the birth of young animals knows. In instances where an animal is too weak to nurse, caretakers may bottlefeed it until it grows strong enough to nurse on its own, ensuring that it gets the necessary dose of colostrum.

In medical treatment, some cultures have used colostrum to treat the sick, theorizing that the high nutritional value and useful antibodies could be beneficial. Colostrum has also been used in biomedical research to explore the formation of antibodies and to think about potential new techniques for immunization which could use doses of colostrum, rather than vaccines.

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