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Here’s the latest in calf nutrition and research

Tom Earleywine Published on 21 September 2009

This summer’s American Dairy Science Association meetings again proved to be a great place to hear the latest discoveries and research in dairy health, nutrition, and housing. The meetings included over 2,000 paper and poster presentations by an international network of academics and researchers.

Following is a summary of a few of the papers looking at developments in calf health and nutrition. There were numerous other excellent papers on the topic that I could not include due to space constraints.



Nutrition research is changing
Dr. Jim Drackley from the University of Illinois presented a summary of changes in calf nutrition, pointing out that calves were viewed as a “nuisance” on dairy farms for far too long. Historically, calf nutrition research has focused on restricting milk feeding for improved grain consumption.

Recently, that has shifted to maximizing performance with a higher plane of nutrition, including milk or milk replacer feeding and grain. In his paper, he wrote that calves have an unexploited growth potential, and research has demonstrated that improved early nutrition increases subsequent milk yield after freshening.

Drackley concluded that, “In particular, the concept that the calf is an investment for the future... must continue to be reinforced throughout the dairy industry.”

Better calf nutrition means more milk
Researchers from Cornell looked at milk records from 792 heifers over an eight-year period to determine what impact growth rates as a young calf had on lifetime milk production. Recent research from eight different research bodies has found that calves raised on a higher plane of nutrition will produce more milk as 2-year-olds.

Cornell workers used the Test Day Model to remove effects of season, gestation length, days in milk and age at calving, and then incorporated pre-calving growth data to find any correlations between growth rates early in life and milk production.


The study found that calves with the highest average daily gain produced the most milk in their initial lactation as well as over the course of their first three lactations. Average daily gain for the calves ranged from 0.29 to 2.71 pounds per day. For each extra pound of daily gain preweaning, researchers concluded that upon freshening, heifers could be expected to produce 1,067 more pounds of milk as 2-year-olds.

That means calves experiencing the highest growth rate could be expected to produce over 2,500 pounds more milk in their first lactation. The researchers also found that the accumulated production response was over 8,100 pounds more milk in the first three lactations for the calves that gained the fastest preweaning.

Take-home message: Calves managed aggressively for growth will produce more milk as 2-year-olds and have better lifetime performance than those fed a lower plane of nutrition preweaning.

Even is better than odd for grouping
For biosecurity reasons, it’s been recommended that calves be separated to avoid the transmission of disease as a result of nose-to-nose contact. However, the growing popularity of automatic calf feeders and animal welfare questions regarding individual crates has researchers re-examining calf grouping strategies.

Work done at the University of British Columbia looked at the effects of raising 27 calves individually or in pairs (nine individuals and nine pairs) for 55 days until they were moved to group housing. The study found that calves raised in pairs ate more grain throughout the study and began consuming water more readily from a bucket post-weaning. These calves also vocalized less during weaning and adjusted more readily to group housing.

Take-home message: Calves perform well in groups, and pairs may be a compromise between welfare and biosecurity. This research also confirms previous work demonstrating that calves will “buddy up” and perform better in even-numbered groups.


Bacillus shows promise for disease moderation
Probiotics continue to be looked at extensively, including Bacillus, which has been shown in trials of over 1,000 calves to slow down the growth of Salmonella, E. coli and Clostridia in California, Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania.

At the meetings, a study by Animix, a nutrition company from Juneau, Wisconsin, was presented that examined the effects of supplementing diets with a calf-specific strain of Bacillus. In three separate experiments of 470 calves, calves were fed Bacillus twice-a-day for either 6, 29 or 55 days.

The study found that feeding Bacillus reduced the incidence and severity of scours when disease rates were between 20 and 33 percent. At higher incidence rates, there was no effect. There was also no advantage to the longer treatment regimens.

Take-home message: Bacillus reduced the scour rates and severity when disease rates were at a moderate level. The probiotic did not perform well in the face of a scours epidemic. Feeding this particular strain of Bacillus during peak scouring times (i.e. the first two weeks of life) seemed to provide benefit to calf health and performance.

Colostrum management can still improve
Feeding newborns the critical first feeding of colostrum continues to be a struggle for the dairy industry. Research shows that 19.2 percent of heifer calves experience failure of passive transfer from incomplete or untimely colostrum feeding.

Dr. Sandra Godden from the University of Minnesota School of Veterinary Medicine has researched colostrum extensively over several years and offered these reminders during her presentation:
• High-quality colostrum should be fed within six hours of birth.
• Colostrum should be individually fed, and the calf should not nurse.
• Colostrum should contain fewer than 100,000 cfu per milliliter total bacteria count.
• To ensure quality, colostrum should be fed, refrigerated or frozen within one to two hours of collection.
• If colostrum replacers are used, producers should feed 150 to 200 grams of IgG in a product that has been tested for efficacy.
• Pasteurization of colostrum is most effective at 140°F for one hour.

Supplemental Gammulin offers health benefits
Researchers at UC-Davis and with APC investigated the effects of feeding 25 grams of Gammulin, a functional protein supplement fed in milk or milk replacer, twice-a-day, from 2 to 24 days of age in 263 calves. A control group of 255 calves was also studied.

All calves were fed pasteurized waste milk to 25 days of age and then fed pasteurized milk supplemented with milk replacer. The study found that calves fed Gammulin were less likely to have diarrhea and fever as well as require oral electrolytes. There were no differences in bodyweight or mortality rates.

Take-home message: Feeding supplemental Gammulin can reduce the symptoms and severity of scours and disease, especially in calves fed only a conventional plane of nutrition. PD

Tom Earleywine
Nutritional Services
Land O’Lakes