The following answer was provided by Al Kertz, principal in ANDHIL LLC, St. Louis, Mo.

Q: What are common problems seen in calf programs?

A: There are a myriad of issues, but let’s stick to common and more readily fixable issues.

The 2007 National Animal Health Monitoring System report (data collected in 2006) showed that many dairies were waiting too long to begin feeding water and starter to the calves, yet could not wait to begin feeding hay. 

Water should be fed right away after putting calves on a milk/milk replacer feeding program. The calf’s body contains about 70 percent water at birth ― the highest it will ever be because as it deposits more fat in the growth process, body fat displaces body water. And if calves experience some scouring, they lose more water through that process. There is also a close relationship between water and dry matter intake (DMI): it is about 4:1. This is also generally true for growing heifers and lactating cows. If water is not available for calves to drink, they are not as likely to begin eating calf starter (CS). Hence, both CS and water should be made available for calves right away. 

The water also needs to be clean, and preferably warm especially as weather cools below 60 degrees F. Calves and cows prefer warm water, even in hot weather. I think it is because warm water does not perturb rumen temperature as much, and they will not need to use body heat to warm up the cooler water after it enters the rumen. 

Calves do not like dirty water and wet CS. The best way to prevent both is to have a physical barrier between water and CS containers. The barrier needs to prevent calves from eating starter and easily swinging their head sideways into the water container, or vice versa. In both cases, the end result will be wet CS and dirty water, which decreases not only intake of both but also accompanying daily gain. 

Now to the hay dimension. For a young pre-weaned calf without a functioning rumen, hay intake will retard the process of developing rumen papillae and their function. That is because rumen papillae development is stimulated by volatile fatty acid production in the rumen in the order of butyric > propionic > acetic. Hay fermentation in the rumen creates the opposite pattern. Furthermore, hay ferments slowly and has a gut-filling effect that can lower CS intake and result in distorted actual body growth and gain. It may be “safe” in minimizing marginal ruminal acidosis, but it does not foster rumen development and true body growth. The key in this arena is to have a well-texturized CS that contains adequate particle size from whole unprocessed grain ― especially corn and oats ― comprising at least 40 percent of the total CS. The other portion of the CS needs to be in a high-quality pellet that does not easily crumble and lead to fines that calves will not eat. Hay should not be fed until after calves are weaned. And, even then, it should only be fed at 5-10 percent of DMI for the first grouping after calves have been weaned.  

So, let’s make sure we are providing calves with the basics of how water, CS, and hay are being fed.