Largest ever UK study launched into passive transfer in dairy herds

Within the UK, the prevalence of failure of passive transfer at the individual-calf level remains high
Within the UK, the prevalence of failure of passive transfer at the individual-calf level remains high

Researchers are seeking to enrol veterinary practices as they begin a study to determine and benchmark individual and herd-level passive transfer status across UK dairy herds.

This is the first study to examine the issue from a UK-wide perspective, with an ultimate aim to inform best practice to benefit both farmers and vets.

Colostrum is essential for the provision of maternally derived antibodies to the new-born calf. This process, known as passive transfer, ensures that neonatal calves are provided a degree of immune protection during early life.

However, within the UK, the prevalence of failure of passive transfer at the individual-calf level remains high.

This is evidenced by recent studies performed in Scotland and southern England, which identified failure of passive transfer in 14% and 21% of calves, respectively.

Those studies draw on a relatively low number of farms, all located within a specific region, which makes extrapolation to a national context difficult.

The study, led by the Royal Veterinary College (RVC), is hoped will be the largest of its kind within the UK, which will increase understanding of the herd-level prevalence of passive transfer in UK dairy herds.

Working with participants, the project will harvest and compile prospective total protein data routinely collected by practitioners from calves between one and seven days old.

This data, combined with a brief questionnaire, will be used to determine how farmers are managing the harvesting, storage and feeding of colostrum and benchmark enrolled herds.

Breed and gender differences will also be assessed, and the herd-level prevalence of failure of passive transfer determined.

The project, funded by the Barham Benevolent Foundation, will also determine the achievability of recently updated thresholds suggested by consensus of North American experts.

Practices which sign up are expected to collect consent from farmers prior to routine serum total protein sampling, and record and store the results of any analysis – alongside calf age, gender, breed, and farm.

A questionnaire, taking approximately 20 minutes, must be completed for each farm once during the study period. After agreeing to participate, practices who sign up will be contacted on a quarterly basis for collection of the data.

Once collated, researchers will anonymise and benchmark each farm, with the results provided to participating practices.

The study is being led by PhD student George Lindley, who conceived the idea while working as a farm practitioner during a European College of Bovine Health Management (ECBHM) residency at the RVC.

George Lindley, PhD student at the RVC, said: “There is a wealth of information being collected routinely by farm vets regarding passive transfer which, if compiled, may provide helpful information regarding the health and welfare of calves born on dairy farms within the UK.

"With this study we hope to harvest that data in a way that adds little extra work to vets and practices involved but provides useful information for those stakeholders involved and the industry as a whole.”

The project started in October 2022 and is seeking practice participation until October 2023, with the target for publication during early 2024.

Practices with any number of dairy clients within England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland are encouraged to consider signing up by emailing