Calves are a genetic investment in the future. Every year producers spend time and money to make genetic selections designed to ensure a calf grows up to be an asset to any operation.
These investments in the calves’ future must still be backed by solid calf management practices to be effective in the long run.
“Measure what you want to manage” describes a growing trend for more data analysis for operation improvement.When accurate records of calf management practices are kept and evaluated, changes can be made to encourage calves to thrive and allow the bottom line to thrive as well.
Cory Vanderham, manager of a calf operation in California, knows the value of data analysis in his operation.
Vanderham manages a calf ranch that takes in calves from several family dairies. Recently Vanderham took an antibody product out of his operation’s procedures to see the impact the product was really having.
After the data revealed the costs of going without the antibodies, Vanderham was willing to reinvest in the product and establish it as a permanent part of his operation.
The product is a bulk colostrum-derived antibody powder designed to be mixed into a calf’s first bottle of colostrum.
The antibodies in the powder help to protect the calf from two of the biggest challenges it faces in the first few days of life: coronavirus and E. coli bacteria, both of which can cause scours, the leading cause of calf losses.
Vanderham first tried it in the last year to help control a coronavirus problem. As the weather cooled, Vanderham decided to pull the product and see what would happen.
Vanderham said, “The main reason for it was for the coronavirus defense and you don’t see an issue in the wintertime. It’s more in the summertime. So I thought maybe this was going to be something I only feed in the summer time to help defend against corona.”
The operation went off of the antibody for three months and saw the death rate increase 1.1 percent, so in January Vanderham decided to go back on it and stay on it. They were able to bring the percentage back down to below its previous level.
Vanderham investigated product claims of a healthier and stronger immune system by tracking not only the mortality rate in his calves due to scours, but also other health factors including growth rate.
Bobbi Brockmann, a calf specialist and director of sales for Immucell, the manufacturer of the antibody product, said that though many producers keep track of mortality rates, few track other calf health factors and those that do are the ones that will help take the industry to the next level.
Part of Vanderham’s overall management strategy is to focus on weight gain for his calves.
He said, “The faster I can get that calf to gain weight, the faster I can get her back to the dairy, which saves me money at the calf ranch.”
This focus led Vanderham to compare the weight data between the calves that received the antibody product at birth to the calves that did not.
He found that the antibody-calves gained nearly half a pound more per day than the other calves.
He also found that these calves were able to reach breeding weight 15 days sooner than their counterparts.
The data that Vanderham collected and analyzed allowed him to accurately see the impact the product was having on his operation.
He said, “I think the first couple of days are key as far as getting that calf set up right. If that calf is set up right she should be able to thrive through the rest of the program that we have in place at the calf ranch.”
When Vanderham pulled the antibody, he wasn’t only checking the effectiveness of the product. He was also able to evaluate if the impact was worth the investment.
Brockmann said she encourages producers to experiment with the product to see if the data supports the investment. Trying to find places to cut corners and see what can be done without is part of what it means to be a producer.
She said that strategy really only works with producers who are willing to understand that they can’t manage what they can’t measure.
Vanderham is looking forward to data gathered this summer and plans to make changes to his procedures based on the results.
After the operation has used the antibodies through the summer, he’ll compare the data for the treated herds against the untreated herds.
He said, “If we see a difference, it’s probably something that we’ll provide as a calf ranch to the respective dairies we take calves from. We’ll provide it out of the calf ranch's expense because I think it makes a world of a difference.”
The difference is in the data. Making decisions like providing the antibody to the dairies requires a very concrete knowledge of the costs and benefits of the product, a knowledge that comes from quantified data.
As producers build in ways to monitor their management practices, they will be able to make better decisions for their operations and help take the whole industry to a new level.
Brockmann is pleased to see more and more producers take record keeping and analysis more seriously so they are able to make informed decisions about what products are working for them and which aren’t.
“It’s just a really exciting time for calves. I’ve been doing this for 15 years, and there has never been more attention to detail then there has been in the last five,” Brockmann said.
“Before, keeping calf records was having a notebook on the calf wagon that got wet and maybe you wrote in that the calf had scours or maybe you didn’t. Now producers are getting more diligent with calf health records and that's only going to improve our industry.” PD
Photo provided by Filament Marketing, LLC.
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