Pour on the calories…it pays

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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.

But calves still do not really gain weight until after weaning. The question is why.

When calves are born, their systems are similar to pigs. But when you compare the performance of calves to pigs, you see a huge difference. Baby pigs go from about 3 pounds to 12 or more pounds in three weeks while nursing — a quadrupling of birth weight. Calves do well to hold onto their birth weight or gain a few pounds. The difference appears to lie in the nutrients fed.

Skinny calves aren’t normal

Calves are born with limited fat stores. A 92-pound calf — born with about 3.5 to 4.1 pounds of body fat — uses about 0.6 to 1.8 pounds of that fat while learning to live outside the womb during the first day or two of life, explains Van Amburgh. That only leaves about 1 pound of fat to draw from when stressed. 

If you feed 1 pound of 20:20 milk replacer powder per day, with no environmental stress, maintenance requirements will be met with little left over for growth. If, however, the temperature drops below 68 degrees F, the calves will be in a negative energy balance and won’t be able to develop the fat stores needed to fight off disease during the first few weeks of life.

This is important for two reasons, says Jim Reynolds, veterinarian at the University of California Veterinary Medicine Teaching and Research Facility. First, the immune system needs energy — provided by the calf’s fat stores — to respond to a disease challenge. And second, when it comes to fighting an infection, the immune system is more important for winning the battle than the medication. 

“Calves in a negative energy balance, or with minimal fat stores, cannot adequately fuel the immune system,” says Reynolds. Contrary to what some producers believe, these skinny calves are not normal. Skinny calves mean more sick calves and more dead calves.

But once you get enough energy and protein into calves, you can get a good functional response from the immune system, which can help minimize the medications needed. And if an antimicrobial is needed, a well-fueled immune system enables a good response to medications and to vaccines.

Research conducted at Virginia Tech with Jersey calves helps quantify the difference. Jersey calves fed 1 pound of 20:20 milk replacer for five weeks had 3 percent body fat. By contrast, Jersey calves fed the same volume of whole milk for five weeks had 9 percent body fat. (Please see picture on page 26.) Because whole milk contains more nutrients (on a dry-matter basis whole milk is 25.4 percent protein and 30.8 percent fat; traditional milk replacer is 20 percent protein and fat), calves were able to replenish their fat stores, grow and even build an energy reserve. With three times more body fat, these calves have more energy reserves to fuel their immune systems and survive adverse weather conditions.

More nutrients = healthier calves

Research conducted by Sandra Godden, veterinarian at the University of Minnesota, compared Holstein calves fed pasteurized waste milk to calves fed a traditional 20:20 milk replacer. All 438 calves enrolled in the study received 4 quarts of fresh colostrum within two to six hours after birth. Calves fed pasteurized waste milk received 4 quarts of milk per day, and calves fed 20:20 milk replacer received 1 pound of powder mixed with 4 quarts of water. The result: Calves fed pasteurized waste milk had fewer sick days, lower mortality rates, lower treatment cost, and higher weaning weights. (Please see chart above.)

A partial-budget analysis shows that calves fed pasteurized waste milk had an economic advantage of 69 cents per calf per day compared to those fed milk replacer, which equates to $34 per calf from birth to weaning. That economic advantage, explains Godden, comes primarily from less treatment cost.

While the volume fed all of the calves was the same, the researchers believe the higher nutrient content of the whole milk (it contains about 18 percent more energy than 20:20 milk replacer) allowed the calves to perform significantly better. And, transition milk from the second, third and fourth milkings post-parturition contains immunoglobulins and non-specific immune factors that can promote calf health.

This is not to imply that milk replacer is bad. Godden says she believes that feeding more milk replacer or a milk replacer product more closely formulated to the nutrient content of whole milk could also improve calf health.

Van Amburgh agrees. Producers who want to feed milk replacer should select a product that more closely reflects the nutrient content of whole milk, or have their nutritionist help them determine how much powder to feed to get improved calf health, he says.

Feed for growth

Every calf has the ability to double its birth weight in 56 days.  It doesn’t matter what product you feed — pasteurized waste milk, a traditional milk replacer or an intensive milk replacer — what matters is the amount of nutrients delivered to the calf. It’s the total nutrient package the calf receives that makes the difference.

In order to achieve this goal, a 100-pound calf must gain about 1.35 pounds of body weight per day, explains Van Amburgh. That means the calf would need to receive 1.6 pounds of milk on a dry-matter basis, or 1.5 gallons of whole milk, per day. Six quarts of milk delivers 3.9 Mcals of net energy to the calf. That’s enough for maintenance, growth and immune function at 68 degrees F (with no environmental stress).

Calf nutrient needs do fluctuate with weather conditions,  so adjust your feeding regimen accordingly. (See chart on page 28.)

Remember, it’s not the volume fed, it is the total nutrient package delivered to the calf.

The payoff

In addition to fewer sick calves and less death loss, feeding calves a higher plane of nutrition from the start also benefits milk production. In separate studies conducted at Michigan State University and at Cornell University, the researchers measured the mammary DNA content of calves fed to double their weight in the first 56 days of life against calves fed in a traditional manner. The calves fed the higher plane of nutrition had 32 percent to 47 percent more mammary DNA content. And this change in mammary development occurs at no other point of development. “It appears if you don’t get the gain prior to weaning, it cannot be recovered later during development,” explains Van Amburgh. 

And these heifers go on to produce more milk. In four studies where neonate calves were allowed to consume at least 50 percent more nutrients than the standard feeding rate, all showed an increase in milk production compared to herdmates. The average milk production response of the four studies was 1,700 pounds more milk in the first lactation. The range was 1,000 pounds to 3,000 pounds more milk. (Please see “The milk production difference,” above.)

At the Cornell Teaching and Research Center, newborn calves have been fed with the goal of doubling their birth weight in 56 days for the past six years. They continue on with diets formulated for maintenance plus specific growth targets. Heifers calve, on average, at 22 months of age, weighing 1,300 pounds, and produce an average of 30,000 pounds of milk in the first lactation, says Walt Jones, superintendent and herdsman at the 543-cow dairy.

 “We expect our heifers to average 90 pounds of milk per day by 60 days in milk,” he says. And, they consistently achieve this goal. In fact, the last group of 10 heifers to calve was producing 95.6 pounds of milk at 100 days in milk.

Because of the success of its heifer-raising program, the Cornell dairy has grown to capacity and now culls 42 percent of the lactating herd (cows with two or more lactations) and replaces them with more productive first-calf heifers. (Cull rate of first-lactation animals is 12 percent.) The dairy’s rolling herd average now is above 27,000 pounds. While this is a research facility, says Jones, there isn’t anything done here that another dairy producer couldn’t do at his operation.

So, what about the economics? The University of Minnesota study showed an economic advantage of $34 per calf from birth to weaning. About 70 percent of that value came from treating fewer sick calves, along with reduced death loss and improved rate of gain. Add in the fact that heifers at the Cornell dairy fed a higher plane of nutrition from birth calve two months earlier, and you have additional savings of about $120 for rearing cost ($2/day x 60 days). That makes a total potential savings on rearing cost of $154 per heifer.

 Now, compare that to the cost of feeding an extra 2 quarts of milk needed to double a calf’s birth weight by 56 days. Using a milk price of $12 per hundredweight, the cost is about $27. That makes the net benefit about $127 per heifer. Or, if you feed milk replacer at a cost of $40 per bag, you would double the amount fed; so ,while it is an additional $40 spent, it still yields a net gain of $114 per heifer.

But the bonus is the extra 1,700-pound average milk production response cited in the four studies. Using that same $12 milk price, the extra milk results in $204 additional income per animal.

 Feeding calves to double their birth weight in the first 56 days may seem like a big upfront cost. But, when you take a systems approach from the start, the result can be healthier heifers that calve sooner and produce more milk.

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This article is available in Spanish at www.dairyherd.com


Cut morbidity and mortality

Research at the University of Minnesota shows that calves fed 1 gallon of pasteurized whole milk on a daily basis have lower morbidity and mortality than calves fed 1 pound of 20:20 milk replacer mixed with 4 quarts of water.

of 20:20 milk replacer mixed with 4 quarts of water.

 

Milk replacer

Pasteurized
whole milk

Number of calves

215

223

Morbidity (% of calves)

 

 

All months

32.1

12.1

Winter months

52.4

20.4

Summer months

12.7

4.4

 

 

 

Mortality (% of calves)

 

 

All months

11.6

2.2

Winter months

21.0

2.8

Summer months

2.7

1.7

Source: Sandra Godden, May 2005 Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association .


Adjust feeding rate for environmental factors

This table shows the pounds of milk replacer powder required per day to meet maintenance requirements of calves, along with generating  1 pound per day of growth at varying temperatures (from 2001 NRC).  Whole milk is approximately 12.5 percent solids and contains approximately 13 percent more energy than the average milk replacer, thus the following values can be adjusted for whole-milk feeding.

Temperature, º F

1 pound gain/day

 

68

60

50

32

15

5

-5

-15

-20

Bodyweight, lb

60

1.1

1.1

1.2

1.4

1.5

1.6

1.7

1.8

1.8

80

1.2

1.2

1.4

1.6

1.7

1.9

2.0

2.1

2.2

100

1.4

1.4

1.6

1.8

2.0

2.2

2.3

2.4

2.5

120

1.6

1.6

1.8

2.1

2.2

2.5

2.6

2.7

2.8

140

1.7

1.7

2.0

2.3

2.5

2.7

2.9

3.0

3.0

 

Source: Mike Van Amburgh, Cornell University


The milk-production difference

This chart shows the results of four studies where calves were fed at least 50 percent more nutrients as neonates than the standard feeding rate and the resulting increased milk production during the first lactation.

Study

Treatment difference in pounds

Bar-Peled et al, 1998

   998

Foldager and Krohn,1994

3,092

Foldager et. al, 1997

1,143

Ballard et al, 2005

1,543 (at 200 days in milk)

 

Source: Mike Van Amburgh, Cornell University

 


Select your rate of gain

This table shows the energy and crude protein requirements of calves from birth to weaning. Select the rate
of gain you want to achieve from the left column and then read across to find out how to feed your calves.

Rate of gain
lbs/day

Dry matter intake
lbs/day

Metabolizable
energy, Mcal/day

Crude protein,
grams/day

Crude protein,
% dry matter

0.45

1.2

2.4

94

18.0

0.90

1.4

2.9

150

23.4

1.32

1.7

3.5

207

26.6

1.76

2.0

4.1

253

27.5

2.20

2.4

4.8

307

28.7

 

Source: Van Amburgh and Drackley, 2005                                          

 

 


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