In the early 1990s, as calf manager at noblehurst Farms in western New York, Sam Leadley dealt with a 20-percent-plus treatment rate for respiratory illness in preweaned calves. Despite a strict sanitation protocol and well-bedded calves, he could not make progress on reducing the high rate of pneumonia.
“I had heard about some Cornell (University) research with feeding for a higher plane of nutrition to calves and decided to give it a try,” he recalls. So, he boosted the solids rate from 12.5 percent to 15 percent, and gradually increased the total amount of 20:20 milk replacer powder fed from 16 ounces per calf per day to 30 ounces.
The first year, he noticed a dramatic drop in his treatment rate — from 20-plus percent to 5 percent. But what if it was just a mild winter? After two years, he compared the results under his new feeding program to what had happened during the two years prior to the feeding change. The cost per pound of gain from birth to weaning was about the same — a little more than $1. But the huge reduction in treatment cost totally offset the cost of the extra milk replacer.
Today, as a calf-care consultant with Attica Veterinary Associates, in Attica, N.Y., Leadley encourages producers to aim for a rate of gain of at least 1 pound per day in preweaned calves and reap the health benefits that come with feeding a higher plane of nutrition.
Here’s why you should feed calves more calories, as well.
A new way of thinking
Many producers believe their calves do fine with 2 quarts of milk or milk replacer fed twice daily. But if that were true, why isn’t the average death loss in heifers before weaning closer to 2 percent rather than 10 percent? And why do so many young calves get sick and go on to be poor-performers? These are the difficult questions, says Mike Van Amburgh, dairy nutritionist at Cornell University. Answering them requires producers and nutritionists to step outside their traditional way of thinking.
About 25 years ago, research showed that limit-feeding milk or milk replacer reduced scours incidence. Since scours were a primary concern, the research was widely adopted on farm. However, the feeding change did not improve high rates of morbidity and mortality. “Since the industry was used to mortality rates of 10 to 15 percent, we looked no further,” explains Van Amburgh.
Subsequent research showed that feeding milk or milk replacer does not cause scours. Scours come from pathogens that sneak in through cracks in management protocols. In herds where management has made sanitation a priority and has adopted protocols to limit transfer of disease from one calf to another, the incidence of scours and illness often declines.