There is much to gain by providing good calf care. It benefits not only the health of your calves but also the return on your calf raising investment. Even on a farm with just 70 cows and 1.3 million pounds of annual production, you can easily gain $6,500 per year just by honing in on calf care.
Make the most of colostrum
Most importantly, a newborn calf needs colostrum before contamination with feces and bacteria occurs. This means providing a clean calving area and ensuring the calf gets 2 quarts of colostrum as soon as possible after birth. Another 2 quarts should be fed six hours later. Giving all four quarts at one feeding within two hours after birth is also an option. The first milk produced within one hour after calving contains the highest amount of immunoglobulins (antibodies). Immunoglobulins (IgG) cannot pass through the placenta to the unborn calf; therefore, the only source of immunity is passive transfer from the colostrum in the short period following calving.
Good quality colostrum is the best insurance against diarrhea and pneumonia, the two biggest calf killers. However, many farms fail to maximize the use of this “liquid gold.” There are many practical solutions to optimize passive transfer of IgG and kick-start the calf’s own immune system:
Use a bucket
with a lid to prevent dirt or fecal material from contaminating the colostrum during harvest.
Maintain easy access to a refrigerator
, as well as 2-quart bottles or bags in which to store the colostrum.
Mark storage containers
with the individual calf and cow numbers. Try to feed a calf colostrum from its own mother when possible to help prevent the spread of Johne’s disease.
(in a baby bottle heater) to body temperature (100°F). You can improve colostrum quality through better dry cow management and less stress around calving. It is smart to measure quality with a colostrometer. If quality is insufficient, you can use 4 quarts of frozen or pasteurized colostrum instead. The best practice for larger dairies is to milk the fresh cows immediately in the calving pen. Allow the cow access to 5 gallons of lukewarm water, and position the calf in front of the cow on a soft, clean bed of hay. This is the calving reward — the calving climax. The cow can now be quietly milked while she licks her calf, and the calf remains in a clean environment. You will likely obtain a larger quantity of colostrum and experience fewer retained placentas.
Once the cow has been milked and the calf given colostrum, the calf should be removed to allow the cow to eat. By placing the calf on hay, this encourages the cow to eat the hay once the calf has been moved. Stimulating feed intake soon after calving lessens the risk for ketosis and displaced abomasums.
Don’t skimp on feed or bedding
In terms of feeding milk or milk replacer, the recommendation is 6 quarts per day (for an 88-pound calf, about 15 percent of body weight). Feed calves three times per day for the first few weeks. Then, from 14 to 30 days, 8 quarts should be fed. Every quarter pound of extra growth before weaning is worth 227 extra pounds of milk in the first lactation. A warm, dry nest is crucial when it’s cold. For the first two months, deep, loose straw is recommended, ideally enough so that the calves’ legs cannot be seen when they lie down (nesting score 3). A deep straw resting area is recommended for animals up to 6 months old. Until this age, their internal “heater” (the rumen) is not producing enough energy to effectively keep the calf warm.
To test the cleanliness of a calf pen, do the knee-drop test: if your trousers are damp/wet, so is your calf, and more straw is needed. Too many calves suffer from cold stress unnecessarily. They use energy from their feed to maintain body temperature, which reduces valuable energy for growth. They burn body fat and muscle and are vulnerable to disease. Typically,calves affected by cold stress fail to reach their growth potential.
Avoid the “weaning dip”
The most common challenge on farms is that many calves fail to grow immediately after weaning — the “weaning dip.” Weaning stress, cold stress and drafts, as well as a delay in hay and concentrate consumption, contribute to this dip. Much of the stress at weaning can be reduced if changes are made in small steps. It is advised to start offering water, forage and concentrates early on to promote rumen development. Once the calves have been taken off milk or milk replacer for a week, calves can be put together in pairs.
Wait a few days, then group two pairs together to make a group of four. After a week, move these groups of four to a different barn, where they stay together for a week to get used to the new barn and new neighbors over the fence. After that, remove the fence between these groups to create larger calf groups. This gradual introduction gives the calves time to adjust to their new “herd” and environment. Quality care during calfhood sets an animal up to be a more productive and profitable member of your herd later in life.