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Crossbred calf economics and health: Considerations from three days to 130 kilograms

Tamara Scully for Progressive Dairy Published on 30 August 2019

Crossbred dairy beef is big news as dairy producers seek to diversify and capture the most value from their bull calves, heifers that aren’t needed for the milking herd or cows which are no longer going to be bred for replacement purposes yet still have a productive milking life.

Each has a role to play in the growing production of crossbred beef. But crossbred beef can’t be an afterthought; the market isn’t going to accept these animals unless they offer a consistently good carcass quality.

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“Not every heifer born on a dairy needs to grow up to be a milk cow,” said Rob Lynch, dairy herd health and management specialist, Cornell PRO-DAIRY.

He was a featured speaker at the recent New York Beef Producers’ Association 2019 conference. Producers should seek to raise calves “in a way to optimize performance,” no matter whether they’ve been bred for beef or the milking herd.

At birth, high-quality colostrum is needed in order to achieve “enough circulating passive immunity to get them through this high-risk window,” Lynch emphasized. “Just hurry up and feed it.”

Proper feeding to optimize health doesn’t stop at colostrum. Calves need the appropriate amount of solids in their milk replacer. Replacer must be mixed and precisely measured at the specified temperature. A mere 2% increase in solids can start to get dangerous, Lynch cautioned.

Starter grain needs to be fed fresh and replaced every day. When 4 cups per day are being consumed consistently for three consecutive days, milk can be discontinued. Free-choice water, available at all times, increases rate of gain.

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“It makes a difference from an intake standpoint,” Lynch said of fresh water consumption.

Disease impacts

Pre-weaned calves are at risk for digestive and respiratory diseases. Both put the calf at a disadvantage, which lasts a lifetime.

Preventing illness is key, but rapid detection and appropriate treatment before lasting damage occurs is crucial. Digestive diseases permanently harm the rumen papillae, altering their ability to absorb water and nutrients.

“We miss a lot of bacterial pneumonia in our pre-weaned calves,” Lynch stated, referring producers to Dr. Sheila McGuirk’s calf health scoring chart to assist with detection.

The calf housing environment – whether individual or group – requires adequate ventilation and cleanliness to prevent pathogens from thriving. At least 30 square feet per calf per housing unit is the minimum space required.

Calves need deep straw bedding so their legs are covered completely when lying down. If legs are visible, or a calf is shivering, energy needed for growth is going instead toward maintaining body heat. This also depresses immune system functioning.

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Proper and regular cleaning and disinfecting of calf pens, as well as feeders, is mandatory for calf health.

Because milk can readily form dangerous biofilms, any container, hose, nipple or equipment that comes in contact with milk or milk replacer must be routinely and properly disinfected.

He reminded producers proper vaccination timing and administration is critical to ensure effectiveness. For calves without optimal health, markets are limited. “There’s not a lot of wiggle room for error,” Lynch said.

Economics

When calves are being raised strictly to be sold for dairy replacement, “if they’re going to leave the herd, I want them to leave at 1 day old,” Jason Karszes, PRO-DAIRY farm management specialist said.

For those raising dairy or crossbred beef calves, the goal is to raise “a high-quality animal, whether entering the dairy herd or not.”

Raising a healthy calf can add to revenue, but the economics must make sense for the operation. Determining just when to sell your calves requires an accurate accounting of the costs incurred each step of the way.

“How much do we have in that animal at 13 weeks old?” is an important question for farmers to answer, but one that has not been a priority, Karszes said.

There aren’t enough dairy farms collecting this economic data to have a complete picture of the average costs associated with raising these calves.

Complicating the situation, there are “big differences across farms” as to housing systems, weaning protocols, non-completion rates and more.

Feed efficiency and labour efficiency are the two major cost components in calf raising. Stress has a big impact on the amount of feed a calf will consume.

Farm management methods correlate with the cost of labour per calf raised. Each calf raised has a production cost. None of them are “free,” a common misperception Karszes has heard from many producers.

The housing system “comes into play really quickly” and impacts both calf health and stress as well as labour efficiency, Karszes said. “What’s our system; what’s our design; what’s our approach? Because that affects the cost quite a bit.”

Labour efficiency tends to go down as animal numbers increase, and group housing does tend to decrease labor costs.

But group pens come with their own detriments, including the increased risk of illness with commingled calves and the capital costs often incurred in switching to group housing and feeding systems.

Some dairies with group housing “invested capital to replace labour,” he said, which results in more overall ownership costs even if cost per calf is decreased.

A 2012 study of 23 New York dairy farms with an average herd size of 112 animals – ranging from 50 to 262 – measured both direct and indirect costs of raising calves from birth to 90 days old.

The average cost per day per animal was $4.91. The total investment in the animal averaged $595. The average total cost per pound of gain was $2.69.

There were wide ranges, however, reflecting the individual management systems on each farm. While these figures were for calves raised specifically as dairy replacement heifers, they can be a good starting point for dairy or crossbred beef producers until more specific data is collected.

The parameters for assessing the quality of crossbred dairy cows raised for beef will need to be determined. How is quality going to be measured in the meat market? Costs of production must be weighed against the price received for that high-quality beef calf.

“You can never lower costs enough to offset quality,” Karszes said. “Will quality be rewarded?”

Raising healthy, high-quality dairy or crossbred beef calves has the potential to provide dairy farms with an additional revenue stream.

The goal is to produce healthy calves that are ready for their next step and to do so profitably.  end mark

Tamara Scully, a freelance writer based in northwestern New Jersey, specializes in agricultural and food system topics.

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