Conversations: Calf management basics
When it comes to calves, it’s never a bad idea to review the basics. As producers and their advisors meet, one conversation should focus on getting the future members of the milking herd off to a good start.
By Marcia Itle
If you raise your own heifers, you’re in charge of the future of your dairy herd. Managing a dairy brings a large number of challenges on a daily basis; this in turn often results in overlooking the basics of raising calves. Getting your calves off to a good start can be the key to raising quality heifers.
Sticking to the basics and paying attention to detail when raising calves will help build a healthy immune system and maximize growth potential. One rule to live by is to double birth weights by 60 days. Keep in mind we are not only raising calves, but building muscle, bone and reproductive tracts in growing heifers.
1) Where do I start?
The first step to a healthy calf starts with the dry cow program. If your calves struggle the first couple weeks or months of life, it may be directly related to inadequate dry cow nutrition.
The goal of providing the calf with good quality colostrum to maximize passive immunity can best be achieved by providing dry cows with adequate protein, energy, vitamins and minerals. In addition to quality, help ensure production of an adequate volume of colostrum by closely monitoring dry matter intakes in the dry period. It’s a good idea to test dry feeds for molds, yeasts and mycotoxins as the ingestion of these may result in significantly lower dry matter intakes.
Approximately 60% of fetal growth occurs during the last three months of gestation. Adequate dry cow mineral supplementation is a must for calf health and developing a healthy immune system. The dry period is an excellent time to consider using organic trace minerals and additional vitamins to optimize increased absorption and passive immunity for the fetus.
It’s also a good idea to work with your veterinarian on a vaccination program that will enhance colostrum quality.
Talk to your veterinarian about how changes to your current dry cow nutrition and vaccination programs can enhance colostrum quality and quantity.
2) Why is colostrum so important?
The most important time of a newborn calf’s life is the first 24 hours. When it comes to colostrum, a good rule of thumb is “the sooner, the better.” Colostrum contains the needed antibodies (immunoglobulins) for the calf to acquire immunity, as well as vitamins and minerals. The digestive system of a newborn calf changes rapidly, and the ability to effectively absorb antibodies begins to diminish within the first 12 to 24 hours of life.
The amount of colostrum required depends on the size of the calf. A general rule of thumb is five pounds of colostrum for a 100-lb. calf in the first 12 hours of life.
Have a written protocol for colostrum testing. The use of a colostrometer is a simple and effective tool, and may identify needed changes in the dry cow program.
Ask your veterinarian to help evaluate colostrum quality.
3) Are all milk replacers and calf starters alike?
Once we start feeding milk or milk replacer and calf starter, the focus should be meeting desired calf growth rates. This is best accomplished by utilizing quality milk replacers and a calf starter meeting the amino acid requirements of the calf. Pay close attention to calf starter vitamin and mineral content.
Ask your veterinarian to help identify milk replacer and calf starter nutrient profiles to meet your needs and conditions.
4) What are the biggest environmental challenges for calves?
A calf’s environment has a huge impact on health and performance. Clean, clean, clean and clean some more. Keep equipment, utensils, hutches and employees as clean as possible.
Make sure housing has adequate ventilation and is designed to reduce drafts. Bedding should obviously be clean, and soiled bedding should be removed as soon as possible.
One simple task often overlooked is making sure equipment and utensils are cleaned and sanitized between feedings. Milk proteins adhere to feeding equipment surfaces. Rinse first with cold water, and then use a quality detergent or disinfectant with hot water. If an esophageal feeder is employed, make sure it has been sanitized and used on only one calf to prevent possible disease transmission.
Winter brings on a whole new set of nutrition challenges. The thermoneutral zone for a calf is 50°-60° degrees Fahrenheit. Once the temperature drops below 50° F, additional energy is required, based on ambient temperature and the size of the calf. These energy needs can be met by feeding additional milk or milk replacer. Another option would be to increase calf starter intakes.
Discuss ways to boost energy intake when environmental conditions warrant it.
5) What about feed additives?
Organic trace minerals and selenium yeast in calf feed or milk replacer may be used to support the animal’s immune system and optimize the response to vaccinations.
Used effectively in milk replacer and starter feeds, yeast (mos) products can promote the nutritional status of the calf by enhancing gastrointestinal integrity and stability and by addressing the calves’ metabolic profile. As a result, those mos products can aid in starter intake and body weight gain.
By focusing on the basics of the dry cow program, colostrum quality and quantity and time of administering, the calves’ environment and choosing the correct feed additives, we can reach lifetime performance goals in our herds. Start each day with a task to keep calves healthy and growing for the next generation. A great place to start is developing protocols in each of these areas, and consulting with your nutritionist and veterinarian to make sure you’re following the steps to true lifetime potential and performance.
• Marcia Itle specializes in calf health, milk quality and production management practices for Alltech. Contact her at email@example.com.