Management Tip: Three Steps to Avoid Calf Bottlenecks

Diamond V

An efficient calf raising program sets the stage for quality replacement animals and productive cows once they enter the milking string. An audit of your calf and heifer raising program can identify areas where efficiency can be improved.

Removing challenges that impede calf health and productivity requires maintaining a balance between how you manage your calves and how you manage their environment. To keep these two elements balanced, consider focusing on three important areas.

  • Proper nutrition starts with quality colostrum

Colostrum should be harvested from the cow cleanly and as quickly as possible after calving. Once harvested, test for quality using a brix refractometer and cool as quickly as possible to prevent bacterial growth. Feed colostrum in a timely manner using clean, sanitized equipment.

Once colostrum is no longer needed, shift focus to consistent delivery of whole milk or milk replacer.  Milk should be delivered at the same consistency, at the same time every day. 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. Deliver milk between 95 and 1050 F every feeding and make sure bottles are filled to the desired level each time, minus the foam.

Provide 2.5 liters of 12 g/dl total solids milk at each feeding to 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 consider using a fortifier if necessary, to boost solids content.

Offer starter grain, but only as much as the calf will eat. Keep feed fresh by dumping starter buckets at least two times per week.

  • Be stringent with sanitation

Any surface that comes in contact with milk or the calf should be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected. One useful tool to measure sanitation is an 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.

Be sure anything used to feed calves is sanitized daily. This includes tube feeders. 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.

Consider using a pasteurizer to reduce pathogen loads in milk and colostrum.

  • Offer clean bedding and fresh air

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.

Scrape and disinfect hutches between calves, and thoroughly clean on an annual basis.

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 a good indicator of proper ventilation.

Establish goals for your calf care program and protocols to help you reach those targets. 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.

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