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Industry panel weighs in on key factors for early heifer development

Progressive Dairyman Editor Karen Lee Published on 13 July 2017
Industry experts speaking about calf care practices included,

Four calf care experts came together to provide practical information for dairy producers to further enhance their calf- and heifer-raising programs during a panel presentation on April 6 at the Canadian Dairy XPO in Stratford, Ontario.

The diverse group of panelists addressed all things related to calves, from colostrum and nutrition to housing and health. The panel was moderated by Pedro Nogueira, Shur-Gain; and the panelists included Andrew Beckel, Golden Calf Company; Amanda Kerr, Grober Nutrition; Skip Wiswell, Agri-Plastics; and Dr. Jodi Wallace, Ormstown Veterinary Hospital and Anderson Farms.

What is the most important management activity for proper calf development?

Beckel: I think the most important thing is the focus on colostrum management. It all starts there. You can’t throw enough money at problems later to try to correct those first few moments. I think you ought to have very easy-to-follow protocols, something that ensures the job gets done right.

Kerr: It’s hard to pinpoint one particular management practice, but through experience, I would say: ensuring a standardized calf care protocol is actually followed and adhered to. This protocol should be flexible, it should be realistic, it should fit into your management style and, more importantly, it should be reviewed.

Wallace: To me, it’s colostrum management; that first 24 hours is key. On our farm, we are committed to making sure those calves get colostrum ideally before they are even standing – mind you, some times at midnight we are a few hours late.

Colostrum is king, and not only the immunoglobulin G’s and passive transfer but also cleanliness. If you get good passive transfer and good immunity, you’re good for the rest of that part. I’d rather spend 20 minutes feeding the newborn as soon as I can than treating her every day for the next 60 days.

Wiswell: Cleanliness right from the very beginning: having a clean place for the calf to go in. Make sure you get your colostrum in and feed that fresh cow milk for the first three days. To get that calf off to a very good start makes all the difference all the way through the whole program.

What is your opinion on feeding colostrum by bottle or tube?

Beckel: For us as a company, and thinking about neonatal calf care, it’s more important they get it than how they get it. The calf needs the nutrients, they need the immunoglobulin and all sorts of things, so make sure you get it all to them. I think that’s the bottom line.

When it comes down to personal opinion, I think certainly nipple feeding is the preferred method for me, but at the same time, I have to realize the dynamics on an everyday dairy. There’s only 24 hours in a day, so you have to manage your time, but don’t throw the calf under the bus just because you only feed half of what they should get.

When you do use an esophageal tube feeder, you are bypassing the abomasum, so it’s going directly into the rumen. Because of that, there’s a little bit that gets hung up in there, so 4 litres (if it’s an average-size Holstein calf) is extremely important to get that all in.

Kerr: It doesn’t matter how you do it; just do it. I would definitely recommend, and it’s my opinion, you should try the bottle first – only for your own sake to gauge the vigor of the calf. If you’re feeding by bottle and nipple, or by esophageal feeder, make sure it’s clean.

Take the feeder apart and scrub it. Take the nipple off the bottle and scrub it. You can deliver the best colostrum available, but if your feeding system is dirty, then you’re undoing a lot of the good you’re trying to do.

Wallace: It’s been two or three years and we’ve done all of our calves, 100 percent, by bottle. Maybe we take a bit more time, maybe it takes 20 minutes, but we ensure esophageal closure. If the calf won’t drink, I think getting the immunoglobulin G’s in is important, so bottle or probe as long as it gets done.

Wiswell: I agree, as long as it gets into the calf. The earlier the better; if you can get it that first hour or two hours will make a big difference compared to if it’s six hours. If it’s colostrum that’s been stored, warm it up slowly in warm water. Some people microwave it and warm it up too fast, and then you’re breaking down all the antibodies you’re trying to get in there.

Is colostrum quality important to measure? Why?

Beckel: Knowledge is power, but what’s more powerful than knowledge is what you do with that knowledge. So testing is extremely relevant and extremely important. We sell a refractometer that’s extremely easy; you physically dip it in the colostrum and get an accurate reading in three seconds. We can all wait three seconds to know some pretty valuable and critical information.

Once you test every animal, you’re going to start to see variations. [Colostrum is] never constant: Seasons change, environment changes, conditions change, feedstuffs change, crops come in, micronutrients; all of these things play into it. The goal should be to offer each newborn calf the best-quality colostrum. The only way you’re going to do that is by knowing what that is, so testing is extremely important.

Kerr: Our Grober technical reps out in the field actually carry around refractometers. They’re very simple, very easy to use, and there’s really no excuse not to measure your colostrum quality. To know yes or no, definitely good or definitely don’t feed, is really step one in making sure that calf is getting the proper immunoglobulin it needs.

Wallace: I think we have to test it all. It is something we’ve done, and I recommend to our clients. On the farm, we test everybody – and not only to have that value of 22 percent. Often I have a cow at 30 or 32 percent, and since I’m bottle-feeding, if that calf is full after 3 litres, I’m not worried about that passive transfer.

If I’m just at a value of 22, and she’s only got 2 litres in, then I know for sure if she’s not going to have passive transfer so I’ll be more likely to use something. For every calf that’s born, we write down that colostrum quality, how much she got, how many hours after she was born it was fed and who gave it.

Wiswell: You can’t just look at it. I think your colostrum should be tested, and it’s very easy with all of the meters we have out there now. It can be very cheap, and all you have to do is save one calf.

Do you have a preference of group housing or individual housing?

Beckel: If it was my dairy, I like the idea to start them off at individual housing. Just so it’s easier for me to care after them. That would be for a week or two, and then I’d have the ability to pull out a divider wall so they can become pairs. Then eventually graduate them to a larger group. You don’t want to overwhelm them, but I think that’s a really good way of setting your animal up for success.

Kerr: Both. At our summer research facility in Woodstock, we’ve looked at a fair number of combinations – and with every research trial, it’s just the same result over and over again, that to start them in individual pens does seem to work the best, whether it’s completely individual or maybe in pairs. You can pick out the sick calves a bit sooner.

When they are in a large group of maybe 10 to 15 or 20 calves, it’s hard to see who’s the one scouring and a little harder to find a subclinically sick calf. After the first two to three weeks, when the calf has built up its own immunity, it’s very effective and really important to move them into smaller social groups. It encourages their strengthening of social relationships, early grain intakes and so on.

As they get older, slowly graduate into slightly larger groups. It’s really just a slow transition from your individual care when they are very sensitive to a cow in a big pen of 200 cows. That’s quite a learning curve the animal has to go through, so it’s really good to start with both.

Wallace: I prefer group housing and to raise them in pairs because that’s the smallest group. The idea of individual housing at the time was to reduce disease transmission, but I would argue: Why are they sick? We should be at a point where calves should have enough of an immune system where they shouldn’t be sick. We had hutches for years, and I used to believe that, but I don’t anymore.

I think socializing is really important. With group housing, there are a lot of other factors. You can’t group without a good ventilation system and enough calories. There are a lot of other factors; you can’t just throw them together and expect it to work. On my farm, day one, when they are born, they are put in pairs or, depending on the calving, they’re in threes, so they are not without a buddy. Also, if there’s a two-week age difference, then I don’t want them together.

Wiswell: I like to see the calves started singly, and then you can put them into small groups. One producer I work with has 20 animals in one group. What they are finding is: Every two weeks, they have some calves that are 3 days old and some that are 17 days old.

He says he made his groups too big, and they should be small enough for one week of calves. I also work with real large farms that do individual housing for labour and the speed of feeding calves. You’ve got a whole different management style when you start grouping calves and what you’re looking for because it’s real easy when you feed individually to see one that’s sick. When it’s in a group, you’ve got to do a little more management.

What do you do once you see that first sign of potential illness?

Beckel: Use your eyes and watch the calf. Calves are really good about telling you if you are good about receiving the information. Have a good calf person watching that calf, looking at the nose, the ears, the eyes, checking the umbilical cord, looking at the back end, temping the calf. If it’s the winter months, get a calf jacket on it so it retains some of that heat.

Mark it; it’s important if you can easily identify the calf. We used to sell calf jackets on the principle you would buy a black-coloured calf jacket for a normal calf. When it becomes sick, you would buy a red jacket and put it on. As humans, our brains are wired that when you see red, you are pulled to that colour in the spectrum much quicker and easier than any other colour. So when you walk by a pen or a hutch, if you have a red jacket, you would identify that as your special-needs calf.

Kerr: Livestock marker – that would be the first step. Identify your calf and continue to monitor that calf and make a regular visit to check on that calf. Maybe follow up with her two or three times that day to see what symptoms she is developing. You can’t treat her now, as you don’t know exactly what it is, but through routine follow up, you’ll see if it’s going to be scours or pneumonia so you can jump quick on it.

Wallace: I would put the calf aside, take a temperature with a thermometer, have a look at it, see what she’s looking like with her nose, eyes, all of the other signs. Then I would write down the temperature and all of the other signs. Check the umbilicus to make sure it’s not coming from some other infection. With your vet, establish a protocol to what you do once you identify those calves and have a checklist to go through or a decisional tree.

Wiswell: When you’re out checking the calf, check for hydration on that calf. You can always bring them a bottle of warm electrolytes and see how it’s going to drink. It’s so important to keep those fluids to them; even if they don’t scour, they need more fluids if they are going dehydrated. It’s real simple; just grab the skin and pull up, and if it stays up, they need hydration.

How soon do you like to introduce free-choice water to calves?

Beckel: Think about your own bodies; we’re mostly comprised of water, and all mammals are, so water is definitely important. Fresh water is needed multiple times a day. You don’t have to fill the bucket all the way to the top, but make sure they have good, clean, fresh water all the time.

If you’re bucket-feeding, don’t figure that warm water is going to clean up the bucket for the next feeding. That [milk] bucket either should be removed and sanitized or cleaned out before you introduce that warm fresh water for those calves.

Kerr: If, early on, the calf is scouring a little bit, they are losing body fluid. That fluid loss will not, cannot, be compensated with milk replacer or whole milk; it has to come from water as well. With early grain intakes, you also need the water there to pair with the grain to stimulate more grain intake for a successful weaning. Test your water. Make sure there’s no nitrates, lead or sodium.

Test twice a year – in the spring when the thaw is coming out and there is a lot of heavy rain showers and then in the fall and early winter as well.

Wallace: I’ll see a newborn after we feed it colostrum; if I see it standing, they’ll drink water. So they’ll have new, fresh water twice a day from birth on.

Wiswell: I agree with feeding water, but feed warm water because if you’re feeding cold water, like it just comes out of the tap, that calf has to raise its body temperature to warm that water up, and it’s burning calories to do that. By getting more water into them, they will get on the grain quicker. They need that water to get into the rumen for their rumen development.  end mark

PHOTO: Industry experts speaking about calf care practices included, left to right, Amanda Kerr, Grober Nutrition; Skip Wiswell, Agri-Plastics; Andrew Beckel, Golden Calf Company; and Dr. Jodi Wallace, Ormstown Veterinary Hospital and Anderson Farms. Photo by Lora Bender.

Editor’s note: Watch upcoming Progressive Dairyman Extra enewsletters for the panelists’ answers to more questions not shown here. To subscribe, go to Progressive Dairyman Canada to start receiving this monthly email.

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