A dozen tips for healthy calves

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We’ve known for years how to get dairy calves off to a good start — feed them an adequate volume of good quality colostrum shortly after birth.

But colostrum isn't the only management factor in keeping baby calves healthy.

Participants at a 2009 Bovine Veterinarian-Alltech young calf nutrition roundtable discussed some of their top tips for healthy young calves.

  • Colostrum. Feed four quarts of good quality colostrum shortly after birth.
  • Use the NRC model for calves. “Anyone who does any amount of calf work should use this,” says Simon Timmermans, DVM, MS, Sibley, Iowa. “You can feed all the protein in the world, but if you don’t have enough energy there to drive protein synthesis, then you have an inefficient diet. It also tells you how much to feed in given weather conditions which is a bigger deal in some parts of the country like the upper Midwest.”
  • Thick and fresh bedding. “Calves have to be bedded right and it’s got to be thick enough that they’re not exposed to all the bacteria underneath,” says Byron Housewright, PhD, Texas A&M University. “Calves hit the ground in that freshening area and they land in bacteria soup. The whole area where these brand-new calves are is tainted.”
  • Fine tune with feed additives. “I always approach feed additives as being at the top of the nutrition pyramid, where you have to have the basics and the foundation fixed first, and you continue to fine-tune as you go up,” says Jim Drackley, PhD, University of Illinois. “I think once you address some of these serious issues about gross under-feeding, there is a variety of products, some of which can add that fine tuning.”
  • Watch weather stress. “As we talk about cold stress, we also have to remember heat stress,” offers Lon Whitlow, PhD, North Carolina State University. “We see good evidence that calves are stressed in the summertime. They need shade.” In the winter, use calf blankets where needed.
  • Use a colostrometer to evaluate quality. Sylvia Kehoe, PhD, University of Wisconsin, says, “We talk about feeding good quality colostrum, but how do producers decide what’s good quality? They look at it. It’s yellow and it’s thicker than milk so it must be good.” To prove her point that just eyeballing colostrum can’t decipher quality, she has her students visually evaluate two containers of colostrum and asks them which is better. One container is heated and the other kept cool. “The students thought that the cooler one was better quality since it was thicker, however, many of them could not make a decision based on what they could see,” she says. “Yet, we have producers who save poor-quality colostrum based on visual assessment.”
  • Use a meat thermometer. Timmermans says using a meat thermometer you can determine if the refrigerator where you store your colostrum is working properly and if your hot water heater is working properly. “You can determine the temperature of the milk being delivered to calves on Jan. 15 at 8 a.m. and at negative 10° outside,” he says. “Better yet, you can measure the temperature of the soapy water where you’re cleaning your utensils, because that concept has to be the same as it is for cleaning pipelines in the milking parlor.”
  • Feed calves more milk. “We need to feed more milk to these young calves,” Whitlow states. “Along with feeding more milk, we need to emphasize that they get the energy requirement they need. There may be some advantages to feeding additional protein, and we need to look not only at vitamins and minerals, but also nutraceuticals. I think there’s a real place for these products in calf nutrition.”
  • Use a scrub brush. Particularly, the insides of bottles need to be scrubbed, and you need a brush that can get inside the esophageal tube feeders, Timmermans suggests. “You really can’t properly clean that unless you have a way to get inside that tube.”
  • Clean the calf cart! adds Kehoe.
  • Quicker detection of scours. In barn mortality, 60 percent  to 70 percent is due to scours, Kehoe says. If producers understand the signs of morbidity, they can have some kind of a protocol in place. “They can tell all of the workers, if you see this, this is what you do. You stick to that protocol, and you have some sort of benefit that the worker can get from doing his job correctly with calves, because it’s too easy to pass off the job to the next guy. You want to get that detection program down quickly. Calves go down so fast that you have to jump right on it to prevent all these other symptoms.”
  • Make calves a priority. “It goes back to basic animal husbandry,” Housewright explains. “How many times have we told our students that the first thing we want to look for is abnormal behavior? If a horse or a cow is usually the first or second one in to eat, and she’s last today, something’s wrong. The people who are out there looking at those calves every day are the ones who have to notice the abnormalities. I think management needs to give calves a more prominent role on most of these farms.”

Read the full Bovine Veterinarian article “Dairy Calf Gut Health” here.



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