Current Progressive Dairy digital edition

0109 PD: Manage calves for maximum adulthood production

Simon Timmermans Published on 23 December 2008
The last year in agriculture has been a volatile one. We have seen rapid inflation of all commodities followed by rapid deflation. It has left me and many of my clients wondering how we can sustain food animal production agriculture in North America. I keep thinking of what to advise clients on how to prepare for the future, if this volatility continues.

Where are the next opportunities that may have been previously overlooked? The easy cliché answer is to get more efficient. Of course, many producers will respond by saying that is how they have survived so far.

Can we squeeze more efficiency like juice out of a turnip? There is one area that may offer some opportunity.



Early calfhood and replacement rearing has been an area that has been receiving more attention. When the topic of early calfhood is discussed, many thoughts revolve around survivability and weaning as early as possible.

If a heifer calf survives past weaning intact and healthy, it is viewed as a victory. I grew up on a dairy and fed calves when I was young and share that sentiment. But when the discussion turns to early calfhood performance such as lean gain and average daily gain and the cost per pound of gain, the dialogue commonly reverts back to:

“We just try to keep them alive, and that is good enough for this operation."

But what if we knew that pre-weaned lean gain could be correlated to significant increases in milk production in adulthood? What if we knew that increasing average daily gain in the first few months of life could decrease the cost per pound of gain?

That concept seems paradoxical, but it is true. When comparing the feed efficiency of different food animals early in life, the Holstein calf falls far behind the pig and lamb. Now one may argue that it is simply a species difference, which may be true.


But what if the average Holstein dairy calf performs at nearly half the efficiency of a beef calf on a typical cow-calf ranch? That suggests nutrition and management. What makes the two situations so different?

That has puzzled me for years, as one would think that housing calves inside, delivering milk to them and giving them TLC would yield greater performance than an Angus calf fending for itself. On the concept of early nutrition related to future production potential, the numbers are significant.

Over several studies, calves that were incorporated into a more aggressive milk program pre-weaning were followed through the first lactation and compared to their peers grown on a more traditional program. The first- lactation heifers produced on average 1,750 pounds of milk more than the control animals across five trials.

Explanations for this effect were larger and leaner heifers at first calving as well as some research suggesting that improved pre-weaning nutrition increases mammary development (i.e., future milk-secreting tissue) in the first few months of life.

So what should a producer make of all this and how should an adviser recommend taking steps to improve early calf performance?

First, keep records on birth weights and weaning weights to calculate daily gain. Second, record milk and starter consumption. This will allow feed conversion and cost of gain calculations to be made. Third, understand nutritional balance between protein and energy.


For example, a one-size-fits-all calf program may not work year-round. For example, energy becomes a big bottleneck to gain in cold winters. Remember that energy requirements are dynamic in small calves.

Many producers inquire about whether to feed milk replacer or whole milk, what nutrient specifications the milk replacer of starter should be or age at weaning. Early in my career I would always try to come up with an answer, but looking back I was wrong to do so.

The real answer should be – it depends. What climate are you in? Minnesota or Florida? What time of year? Are the calves in hutches or inside where the climate is somewhat controlled? How many times a day can calves be fed?

In other words, what is the target dry matter intake and how can we deliver it effectively, safely and efficiently? What is the target growth rate? Do we just measure the bodyweight, or should we also measure height and girth to determine lean gain from overall gain?

These are all questions that should be asked before a recommendation is made.

But through this, there are still concepts that will hold true across different programs. Clean, warm, fresh water should be available to a calf in the first week. This is even truer in cold weather as humidity levels are often lower in winter.

It is well documented that water intake is correlated to starter intake. Offer fresh starter to a calf in the first week. Keep it fresh daily with small amounts until they consume it, and increase the amount from there. Try to keep the starter away from the water bucket to avoid soggy grain.

Starter intake is the most important variable to determine age of weaning and feed efficiency in the pre-weaned calf. Have a bacterial strategy.

Vaccinating dry cows for E. coli and using mannan oligosaccharides in colostrum and milk have been well documented to be successful. Remember, bacterial overgrowth is the most common cause of scouring and death in calves. Employ a good colostrum program with quality control to monitor progress.

I like to routinely monitor two ways. First, blood total protein to monitor passive transfer. Second, bacterial counts of colostrum before it enters the mouth of the calf.

This will alert producers of hygiene issues early. If calf raisers can get these concepts mastered, the rest of the variables become less important, and successful calf raising may be the opportunity we are looking for. PD

Simon Timmermans