Achieving lifetime genetic potential can be challenging for a calf, especially because so many factors will ultimately impact its expression. One critical factor in maximizing a heifer's genetic potential is nutrition, since how heifers are fed will determine performance related to growth, health and production.
During a recent Heifer Raising Workshop hosted by Arm & Hammer Animal Nutrition, Robert Corbett, consulting veterinarian in Spring City, Utah, said 80 to 90 percent of dairy producers continue to feed calves the same way that was recommended decades ago. The standard feeding of two quarts of milk replacer simply doesn't provide the nutrition calves need to maximize their potential.
"We must deliver the nutrients that are biologically normal, which means that's what a calf would consume if left with its mother," Corbett explained to attending nutritionists and producers. "When we feed calves the right amount of milk and high-quality calf starter we see fewer incidents of death loss, lower treatment bills and heifers that are able to be bred earlier."
Here are some key insights on how genetic potential can be achieved through proper nutrition:
- Feed more milk. Calves need more milk with greater solids content. A 20:20 milk replacer just doesn't cut it, Corbett says, and in cold weather can actually result in weight loss and greater incidence of disease. He recommends feeding at least 7 quarts of 28:20 milk replacer daily while also providing high-quality starter grain.
- Water is a must. For this type of feeding program to be effective, keeping water in front of calves is absolutely necessary. Because the milk has higher solids content, it can cause dehydration if calves aren't provided with water.
- Make protein a priority. "When heifers are fed the right ration, there's no such thing as eating too much, because when heifers eat more, they grow more," Corbett explains. Feeding high-quality protein sources and delivering the amino acids and peptides needed to make protein allows for structural growth without over conditioning.
- Implement slow, steady change. Changes should happen over time, rather than occurring quickly. For example, moving calves into group pens at the same time as weaning can cause increased stress and disease, leading to a lag in growth. Instead, keep calves in hutches for a few extra days after weaning so they become accustomed to their grain-based diet, and then make the pen move a week later. Keep the "slow and steady" mentality as each and every change occurs in the heifer pens.
By providing a higher plane of nutrition to calves and heifers extremely low death loss (less than 1 percent) is achievable, while treatment bills can decline significantly. This translates into healthier heifers that reach breeding size sooner, join the milking herd earlier and increase lifetime profitability.