Don't underfeed calves

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An article in this month's issue looks at accelerated calf feeding programs. And, while we've seen good success with high growth rates of 2 to 3 pounds per day, I commonly see situations where calves appear to be just maintaining or actually losing weight prior to weaning.

In fact, I think this is maybe a little more pronounced in Jersey calves than in Holsteins because we perceive that small calves don't need as much milk. It is also more pronounced as the weather turns colder and the calf uses more of its energy to maintain body temperature.

To truly resolve the underfeeding problem, I began to investigate the actual amount of nutrients being provided, primarily in milk replacers. The calf's nutritional needs mimic the cow's needs in that it needs pounds of feed - not necessarily percentages - to prosper. This means that calves not only need the proper fluid amounts, but also the right amount of solids within the fluid volume fed.

After speaking to Sheila McGuirk, a veterinary researcher at the University of Wisconsin, I was able to develop some nutritional calculations to determine if the milk replacer is meeting the calf's energy needs for maintenance and growth. These can be done easily on your farm by measuring the weight of a typical calf and gathering information from the label of the milk replacer you use.

I did the calculations found in the table below and summarized here for a client whose Jersey calves were not gaining weight.

First, a calf needs about 50 kilocalories per kilogram of body weight just to maintain its current weight. In addition, the calf needs about 3 kilocalories per gram of energy for weight gain. For a 66-pound Jersey calf gaining 1.25 pounds per day, this converts to an energy requirement of 3,203 kilocalories per day.

The milk replacer was comprised of 20 percent protein, 20 percent fat, and 0.15 percent fiber. I figured the carbohydrate level in this replacer at about 50 percent. Based on McGuirk's recommendations, I assumed each gram of fat has 9 kilocalories of energy and each gram of either protein or carbohydrate has 4 kilocalories. When mixed, 1 pound of milk replacer provided 2,088 kilocalories of energy.

On this dairy, the milk replacer was being mixed at a 1 pound per gallon rate, and the calves were being fed 0.75 gallons per day split between two feedings. Therefore, the calves were receiving 1,566 kilocalories of energy per day.

This means that the calf was receiving just 66 kilocalories more than the 1,500 kilocalories it needed to maintain its body - which provided virtually nothing for growth in the liquid diet. The rest would have to be made up from the hay and calf starter being offered. Needless to say, despite a good colostrum management program, this dairy experienced higher-than-normal mortality and morbidity rates.

After making these calculations, the dairy immediately raised the level of energy being fed by raising the amount of daily milk replacer from 0.75 pound to 1.3 pounds per animal. We also took the hay away and began offering only high-quality calf starter. We also began to adjust the volume of milk replacer fed as the calves grew.

In other underfed calf herds, we have added a fat supplement to the milk replacer - a cheaper way to increase the energy level. Or, in herds that "warm up" waste milk by adding warm water, we have cut back on the amount of water used or found other ways to heat the milk.

Birth to weaning is actually the time in an animal's life when the feed-to-growth ratio is the highest or most efficient. Make sure you aren't missing that opportunity.

Mark Wustenberg is a veterinarian in Bay City, Ore., and operates Kilchis Dairy Herd Services with his wife, Judy.



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