Calf raising practices across the country can be very different and each farm has its own way of raising their calves. However, the end goal on most calf operations is universal: to raise calves economically in order to achieve optimal performance once they freshen.
That’s according to Dr. Bruno Amaral, dairy nutritionist consultant with Purina Animal Nutrition. “While very simple in theory, this goal may not be attainable if producers and calf managers don’t have a system in place to measure the effectiveness of their calf nutrition program,” he says.
Key performance indicators or KPIs are often used to evaluate the performance of the lactating herd. KPIs can also be useful tools to assist in evaluating calf performance and how calf nutrition programs contribute to lifetime profitability of the operation.
Use KPIs to make more informed management decisions
To show the importance of utilizing KPIs, Dr. Amaral shares an actual herd that he worked with recently. This operation was evaluating the cost-effectiveness of implementing a higher plane of nutrition in its calf feeding program versus continuing with its existing feeding program.
Two feeding programs evaluated:
- Current feeding program: Pasteurized waste milk and an 18 percent calf starter.
- Higher plane of nutrition feeding program: Pasteurized waste milk with a Pasteurized Milk Balancer® supplement along with a 20 percent calf starter. (A Pasteurized Milk Balancer® is a supplement product developed to be added to pasteurized milk to increase the total solids fed and also to balance fat and protein in the final solution.)
To determine which program would add more to the dairy’s bottom line, Dr. Amaral and the producer evaluated both programs at the farm level, using 20 animals per treatment.
Both groups received the following liquid nutrition:
- At birth: 4 quarts of colostrum
- Maternity barn: 2 quarts 8-12 hours after birth
Pasteurized waste milk was then fed at the following rates:
- Day 1-14: 2 quarts twice per day
- Day 15-28: 3 quarts twice per day
- Day 29-42: 4 quarts twice per day
- Day 43-49: 8 quarts once per day
The total solids concentration in the pasteurized milk averaged 12.5 percent total solids. For the group fed a higher plane of nutrition, 0.5 pounds of Pasteurized Milk Balancer® supplement was added per gallon of pasteurized milk. The solution of pasteurized milk plus Pasteurized Milk Balancer® supplement averaged 16.5 percent total solids.
During the field demonstration, starter intake was also measured on all calves from birth to weaning (49 days).
Throughout the field demonstration, calves on the higher plane of nutrition doubled their birth weight in 49 days whereas those on the pasteurized milk only, did not. The average daily gain for calves that were fed a higher plane of nutrition was 1.77 pounds per day compared to 1.29 pounds per day for calves fed pasteurized milk only. The cost per pound of gain up to weaning on the group fed a higher plane of nutrition was $2.26 per pound of gain compared to $2.29 per pound of gain for calves fed pasteurized milk only.
“At first glance, it looked as if there was an advantage to feeding calves a higher plane of nutrition of $0.03 per pound of gain,” says Amaral. “However, there are other contributing factors that affect profitability besides weight gains. We decided to take it a step further by evaluating treatment and mortality costs.”
For the higher plane of nutrition group, treatment and mortality costs averaged $7.81 per calf and the pasteurized milk only group had average treatment costs of $11.51 per calf. “There was a lot of money spent on treatments in the group fed a lower level of nutrition,” says Amaral.
“If calves do not ingest enough nutrients to support growth and immune function, their defense mechanism can become compromised and treatment and mortality cost could be increased,” he explains.
Use KPIs to take action
By knowing all the KPIs (including treatment and mortality cost), this producer was able to evaluate the cost per pound of gain adjusted for treatment and mortality cost which was $2.43 per pound of gain on the higher plane of nutrition group compared to $2.68 on the pasteurized milk group. From this, it was concluded that calves fed a higher level of nutrition increased farm profitability $0.25 per pound of gain.
“From this exercise, we found that measuring calf performance and tracking KPIs of interest can help dairy producers make more informed decisions to maximize lifetime profitability,” says Amaral. “To put it simply, by measuring all of your costs, you are able to make wiser economic decisions for your calf feeding program.”