Al Kertz, nutritionist at Andhil, LLC, offers the following comments on calf-rearing programs and the need to get calves off to a good start: 

“There is increasing evidence that "calves never really get over a good start or a bad start." While the calf period is the obvious starting stage for rearing dairy replacement heifers, the critical nature of this start is only recently being understood. This start influences how well calves do, not only as first-calf heifers, but apparently also in subsequent lactations, too. Consequently, the feeding and management of calves must be balanced between minimizing costs and taking advantage of this most efficient period in converting nutrients to growth, without limiting lactation value later.

Issues and Questions

  • Re-think how we look at calf starters and liquid feeding programs. Look to maximize performance of calves rather than simply to cut costs of calf feeding programs. Otherwise, negative consequences can accrue for the most vulnerable, responsive and efficient growing animal on a dairy. Furthermore, there are now indications that future milk yield can be affected. 
  • Check and track serum total protein levels and use to monitor and correct colostrum administration deficiencies. 
  • Track and evaluate your calf records for scours, respiratory problems and treatment costs. Look at when these occur: by week, before weaning, after weaning, in the first grouping, etc. Is there a pattern relating serum protein level with calf source, year, time of year, age of calf, day of week, time of day, etc.? 
  • Set up and use records to be able to back-track animals to see how early calf performance may have affected subsequent heifer growth and performance. For instance, a calf with a respiratory problem may get lost in the group unless tracked for performance. Is it a better economic decision to cull that heifer when young, rather than feed and manage for 1-2 years before noting that it required more time and more costs to raise that heifer? And remember it is more likely that calf will struggle later at its first calving, not do well in the first lactation and be culled then or after going into the second lactation. 
  • If you are a calf or heifer grower, it is important to capture the value in how you feed and manage animals to make the dairy recognize the benefit of a good start versus a bad start. 
  1. For example, "bad start" calves are more likely to have pneumonia during the first 3 months; are more likely to die after 90 days of age; and if they have a calfhood history of scours they are more likely to be sold than other calves. If heifers are treated for scours, they are more likely to calve after 30 months of age than other heifers.
  2. On the other hand, "good start" calves experience less veterinary costs, have more daily weight gain and produce more milk during the first and second lactations.”

Source: Dairy Calf and Heifer Association