Calf ranchers: Raise bar to animal welfare ‘gold standard’

By Cecilia Parsons

Calf ranch managers are raising the bar, setting goals for the next generation of milk makers under their care.

The “gold standards” developed by the Dairy Calf and Heifer Association, and private, third party guidelines set by animal welfare certifiers are being surpassed by some managers intent on raising the bar when it comes to calf and heifer nutrition, housing and handling.

Heifers raised at the Cameiro Heifer Ranch in Brawley will return to their owners at weights of 1,250 to 1,300 pounds and calve six to eight weeks later, said manager Diana Gonzales.


Animals need good start

They do this with a forage-heavy diet, Gonzales said, because they believe the rumen develops better on a forage diet. Calves at the Teunissen Calf Ranch in Tulare are fed adequate amounts of colostrum, even if they were properly cared for at birth on the dairy. Manager Donna Force said they are under close observation when they arrive at the ranch to make sure they get a proper start health wise.

They won’t grow and thrive without having their nutritional needs met, she said. The calves are scored for health and placed in sanitized hutches for the first 60 days.

“ I watch them; my workers are trained to know what to look for, and we make sure they are receiving enough calories to maintain themselves,” she said.

The Cameiro Heifer Ranch takes weaned heifers from about 12 dairies in Chino, the Central Valley, Arizona and the high desert area of California. They are currently raising about 9,000 head, down from a peak of 18,000 a few years ago.

Long time dairy producer and nutritionist Jerry Craveiro started the ranch in 1986. Gonzales said he taught her all he knew about raising good replacement heifers.

Starting with 300-pound heifers, the ranch feeds and breeds them to calve at 23 months of age. Gonzales said the heifers are bred at 800-850 pounds and about 48 inches in height depending on age.


Following protocols is key

Their health protocol begins when the heifers arrive. The receiving corrals hold heifers from the same dairy and allow no contact with other heifers for seven to ten days. During that time they initiate stanchion training and begin a vaccination protocol.

If they spot a health problem heifers are treated – if the problem is one that spreads quickly – coccidiosis, for example, Gonzales said they treat all the heifers in that pen. They are on the lookout for heifers that are poor doers and cull them to eliminate persistent infective carriers. Poor doers are one of the biggest challenges to heifer raising, Gonzales, said, because they look good when antibiotics are administered, but then disease symptoms return. Most are pneumonia and BRD problems, she said. They necropsy all dead calves and find those that have been chronically ill have compromised lung function.


Heifers fed different ration

Feed costs are the biggest expense at all calf and heifer ranches, Gonzales said, but at Cameiro they do feed a little differently than other heifer raisers. Their heifers are fed a mix of chopped alfalfa straw and dried distillers grains. They do not feed silage, haylage, green chop or corn.

“We feed a lot of hay. It works for us,” said Gonzales.

They also focus on their workers and their ability to handle heifers. Gonzales oversees a crew of 17 with specialized training in handling, breeding and feeding. She said they do training for all parts of the operation and bring in veterinarians and pharmaceutical reps. At staff meetings they go over new protocols to make sure all understand.


Hire those who fit the job

Force said she only hires workers who like handling animals and understand their behaviors.

“They can’t get mad at calves for doing what comes naturally to them,” Force said.

The ranch does not allow the use of hot shots and the contracted truck drivers who deliver calves to the ranch also have to follow that rule, she noted. No one misses the hot shots, Force added.

She oversees a full time crew of 19 to take care of 2,500 to 3,000 calves. Day old Holstein heifer and bull calves are delivered to the ranch seven days a week. They are age and source verified and tagged for identification. The program ensures traceability of the bull calves, which will go to feedlots.


Animal welfare certification

For the past three years, Teunissen Calf Ranch has participated in an animal welfare certification program that audits them on care of the calves. Most of the protocols, including feeding, handling and comfort were already part of their routine, she said.

Calves arriving at the ranch are evaluated for health and given colostrum, even though they may have already received it a their dairy where they were born. They are placed in clean hutches and have water and grain in front of them from Day 1. New calves received powdered milk for the first few weeks then are fed hospital milk that has been pasteurized.

Use of calf hutches has made some calf ranches the targets of animal rights activists. Force disputes their characterizations. “We put the calves where they will grow the best and be healthy. Our calves are warm, dry and well fed.”

They don’t wean and move the calves to corrals at the same time. Force said they wean them off milk over three or four days before moving to lessen the stress on the calves. In the mixing corrals the calves receive a total mixed ration plus silage.


Clean, dry and comfortable

The animal welfare certifier’s goal for dairy calves, says consultant and veterinarian Jim Reynolds, is that they be clean, dry and comfortable.

The animal certification programs verify that the calves are allowed normal behaviors and not mistreated, that there are disease prevention and treatment protocols in place and that the calves are fed appropriately to keep them in good condition. There also must be a protocol for humane euthanasia, Reynolds said.

Animal welfare goals are similar to economic goals, Reynolds said. More dairies and calf ranches are doing welfare audits to show they are caring for their animals.