Each dairy farmer has their own philosophy around the best way to raise calves. Every farm is different, and what works best on one farm may not work on another.
Regardless of system, there are general guidelines that apply to any successful calf raising operation. When these guidelines are not followed, bottlenecks are created that impair growth and productivity. Because your system is unique to your operation, the key is to identify potential bottlenecks and accomplish repeatable success that enables you to reach your calf raising and herd replacement goals.
Build your future
Just as proper nutrition can enhance growth and subsequent milk production, adverse health events can decrease productivity. Additional research shows that calves treated with antibiotics produced 1,086 pounds less milk in first lactation than calves with no record of treatment.
Identify your bottlenecks
One way to identify bottlenecks that may be impeding progress in your calf management system is through an informal calf audit. You can do this on your own, or you could enlist the help of a third-party expert to evaluate your operation. Audits can help identify if systems are in place, and if compliance to those systems is adequate. Conducting and recording data from audits over time can also help document continuous improvement.
There are six critical control points to consider when evaluating bottlenecks to your calf management program:
- Cleanliness and sanitation
- Milk preparation & delivery
- Caloric intake
- Air quality
Probably the most critical part of calf raising is getting enough high-quality colostrum into the calf as soon as possible after birth. Colostrum should be harvested from the cow cleanly and as quickly as possible after calving. Cows begin to reabsorb immunoglobulins soon after calving, so the longer you wait to harvest, the more colostrum quality drops.
Once harvested, test for quality using a brix refractometer and cool as quickly as possible to prevent bacterial growth. Then, when feeding colostrum make sure it’s fed in a timely manner and that all equipment is clean and regularly sanitized. If great care is taken to harvest clean, high-quality, pathogen-free colostrum, all that work goes to waste if the feeding equipment is dirty or contaminated.
Bottle nipples are one important and often overlooked piece of equipment. Often nipples become worn out from repeated use and cause an excessive amount of milk to be delivered. This can be fine for mature calves, but it’s not good for newborn calves just learning to drink from a bottle. To check the status of your bottle nipples, fill a bottle and hold it upside down after putting on the nipple. If milk drips out of the nipple, it’s fine. If there is a steady stream of milk, the nipple needs to be replaced.
One useful tool to measure sanitation is an Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) meter. Clean surfaces are swabbed and the ATP meter gives a readout of surface bacterial growth. A reading under 30 is ideal, and anything over 200 is significantly contaminated. Of course, another useful tool is your eyes—if something looks dirty, it needs to be cleaned.
Pasteurization is a good way to reduce the number of harmful bacteria in colostrum. However, colostrum that is heavily contaminated before pasteurization will still likely be contaminated after the process. It’s a good idea to take a colostrum sample before and after pasteurization to make sure the process is doing its job.
Another often-overlooked piece of equipment is the tube used to feed calves. One way to keep it clean is to store it in a bucket filled with a light disinfectant. Fill it high enough so the entire mechanism can be immersed in the fluid. Be sure to dump and refill each day.
Any surface that comes in contact with milk should be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected. Go through the following procedure to sanitize inside and outside of calf feeding equipment within two hours of use:
- Rinse equipment with lukewarm water.
- Soak with hot water (>1400 F) with a chlorinated alkaline detergent (pH 11-12)
- Vigorously wash calf feeding equipment with a brush for one-to-two minutes
- Rinse with cold water
- Rinse a second time with an acidic solution (pH 2-3)
- Allow calf feeding equipment to dry
- If clean-in-place systems are used in bulk tanks, clean the spray ball inside the tank on a regular basis.
Calf hutches should be scraped and disinfected between calves, and thoroughly cleaned on an annual basis. It is best to do this away from other calves and with a low-pressure sprayer, as a high-pressure washer will aerosolize bacteria.
Consistency is key. Milk should be delivered at the same consistency, at the same time every day. You don’t want to feed calves milk the consistency of ice cream one meal and skim milk the next. Use a brix refractometer to measure total solids, keeping in mind that the actual total solids are 1.5-to-2 points higher than the readout. Strive to have a consistent value for every feeding, every day. With regard to temperature, make a goal of delivering milk between 95 and 105° F every feeding. In terms of quantity, make sure bottles are filled to the desired level each time, minus the foam.
Make sure calves are getting enough calories, especially with cold weather just around the corner. Providing 2.5 liters of 12 g/dl total solids milk each feeding will meet maintenance requirements in moderate weather. It is good to encourage 3 liters per feeding, and it’s safe to feed up to 15 g/dl of total solids. Be sure to test whole milk since quality can vary considerably and if necessary, consider using a fortifier to boost solids content.
Regarding starter grain, only offer as much as the calf will eat. Offering too much just leads to spoilage in the bucket. To keep feed fresh, dump starter buckets at least two times per week and offer any refusals to older animals.
Clean, dry bedding is essential to calf health and growth. Any extra investment in maintaining clean, dry bedding will pay off in lower health costs.
Dry bedding is especially important in wet, cold weather. Ensure proper drainage around hutches, or at least keep hutches high enough so bedding won’t get wet. Consider using calf jackets to keep calves warm. Using a blow drier on newborn calves to dry them off can also be beneficial.
Air quality and ventilation
Maintaining air quality is important, especially with indoor facilities. Ammonia meters can be a good indicator of air quality, and manometers can indicate air speed. There are also devices that can measure bacterial levels in the air, which can also be an indicator of proper ventilation.
Your calves are the future of your herd, so it’s important to establish goals for your calf care program, and protocols to help you reach those goals. Understanding the bottlenecks that lie in the way of calf performance can help you determine if protocols are working to help you maintain a successful calf management program.
Three Management Tips for Lifelong Immunity Starting with the Calf
- Analyze your colostrum program. Measuring serum total proteins will help you evaluate passive transfer of antibodies and give you an idea of the effectiveness of your colostrum program. In 2019, a group of calf experts updated the industry guidelines to a tiered system for adequate passive transfer. Farms with the most success will meet or exceed these standards. Definitions under these guidelines are:
- Excellent – >40% of calves on farm with a serum total proteins (TP)>6.2 grams per deciliter (dl)
- Good – ~30% of calves with serum TP 5.8-6.1g/dl
- Fair – ~20% of calves with a serum TP 5.1-5.7 g/dl
- Poor – ~10% of calves with serum TP <5.1g/dl.
- Be consistent. Calves, like human babies, thrive on consistency in their nutrition program. Feed the same volume and temperature of the same product at the same time every day.
- Milk replacer: follow label directions specifically regarding water temperature for reconstitution, and to mix to the same total solids every feeding.
- Whole milk: monitor total solids and supplement as necessary to keep a consistent product for the calves.
- Starter: As calves transition calves from a milk-fed diet to a grain diet, all changes should be gradual; avoid making too many changes at once.
Include an immune support product. Even the best programs are not perfect. Consider implementing an immune support product that is soluble in milk or milk replacer, helps to directly support the calf’s immune system, maintains gut integrity, and further develops the calf into a ruminant animal. Work with your nutritionist or veterinarian to find a product that goes beyond one specific challenge, such as E.coli. Products that support the GI tract and immune system are key, so whenever ANY challenge comes along, the calf is better prepared to handle it.