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Calf raisers focus on the future at annual convention

PD Editor Karen Lee Published on 27 April 2011
Dairy producers, calf raisers and allied industry came together last month to focus on the future of the dairy industry – the calves.

“This is where it starts,” said Douglas Braun, DVM, senior veterinarian at Pfizer Animal Health Dairy Veterinary Operations. “The farm’s future for the next year is in the fresh cow. For the next three to five years, it’s in the newborn calf.”

Braun performed a wet lab in getting calves off to the right start at the Dairy Calf and Heifer Conference in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.



He stated, “We are still losing 8 percent of calves before we have a chance to wean them.”

Therefore, it is so important to have cows calve in a clean pen, harvest colostrum in a clean bucket and, in some way, deliver enough colostrum to keep the calf healthy and growing.

Braun dissected an udder to explain how the calf’s first meal is produced and protected.

He also displayed a cow’s lung with tissue that had been damaged, most likely by a respiratory disease. Undetected until slaughter, that damaged tissue most likely impacted the cow and her performance throughout her lifetime.

Braun reiterated that an adequate feeding of colostrum has been linked to lifelong productivity benefits.


Dr. Sheila McGuirk of the Department of Medical Sciences at the University of Wisconsin, also emphasized colostrum in her presentation on “Making Strides in Calf Health: Opportunities and Obstacles.”

“I don’t believe that many solutions come in the form of a bottle or medicine,” she said, stating the focus should be on colostrum, nutrition and environment.

While there are many ways of feeding colostrum that work well, program pitfalls are typically inadequate volume fed, inadequate quality and poor immunoglobulin absorption by the calf.

Over time, nutrition for calves has changed. “With more milk consumed, cows have fewer health problems,” she said. The goal is to double birth weight by 56 days – an average of 1.6 pounds per day.

Feeding consistency is a challenge for nutrition. Calf feeders should watch the variation in total solids in powder or whole milk and only add 1 percent of solids one day at a time.

What’s underneath the calf, what’s in the air around the calf and what comes in contact with the calf – feeding equipment, people, pets and pests – are all parts of a calf’s environment.


Calves need to be housed in a place that is clean, dry and draft-free. They should be comfortable with enough bedding for nesting in cold climates.

Like cows, calves yearn for consistency. Pen moves should be limited, changes implemented gradually and time allotted for adjustment.

Monitoring calving can reduce calf death in the first 48 hours, she said. Proper monitoring should continue throughout the first few months and include plane of nutrition, management, housing type, group size, timing of the exam (1/2 hour after the morning feeding or before the afternoon feeding), type and quality of screening, time support and training.

Employees should be given time to do health screening. It is up to the owner or supervisor to make sure it is a process that works and not so punitive it will not be done. “Do not place penalties on the calf, the screener or the treatment crew,” McGuirk said.

Heifer mastitis
Mastitis is the most common, and often most costly, disease of dairy cows, but many times heifers are forgotten in mastitis management.

Dr. Pamela Ruegg of the University of Wisconsin – Madison, gave special attention to the cause and effect of mastitis in this young group of cows.

“With the exception of one organism (mycoplasma), bacteria enters through the teat end,” Ruegg said. “What we really want to do is keep bacteria from colonizing on the teat end.”

Typically there are many, many more subclinical cases of mastitis than clinical cases, and that is especially true for heifers.

“In many animals, subclinical infections and clinical infections are simply manifestations of the same infection,” she said. “Clinical infections may have been acquired before the cows calve.”

Cows have been known to calve with high somatic cell counts and not develop clinical signs for months.

Somatic cell counts in milk are the biggest indication of mastitis in the herd. Cows with SCC greater than 200,000 SCC/ml have mastitis in one or more quarters. Heifers should have counts at 100,000 or below. If their first test is at 200,000 or more, they calved with it, Ruegg said.

That first milk test is a critical control point in dealing with mastitis in heifers.

If it is found to be a problem, Staphylococci or Mycoplasma are the most likely cause.

Risk factors may include: poor calving hygiene, flies, commingling calves, feeding waste milk, purchasing infected calves and poor ventilation.

To reduce the occurrence of mastitis in heifers, Ruegg mentioned spraying teats three times a week to reduce bacteria.

Herds with a lot of infection pressure from within, from purchased heifers or from heifers returning from a commingled facility could consider using teat sealant or mastitis treatment pre-calving.

An alternative with dairy beef
If you are already set up to raise calves and heifers, incorporating dairy beef into your operation may be an easy way to diversify.

Amy Radunz, a University of Wisconsin beef cattle extension specialist, discussed this alternative enterprise.

“First, it is important to understand what product you’re producing,” she said. “You are paid on carcass weight and then adjustments are made for yield and quality grade.”


Fat is the primary driver behind yield grade. An advantage of dairy cattle is that they don’t deposit as much external fat and typically yield between the upper twos and threes.

Quality grade is determined by marbling and maturity. BSE slaughter protocols place a distinct advantage on animals marketed at 30 months or younger.

Dairy cattle are discounted because they are lighter muscled and don’t yield as much product relative to a beef animal, Radunz said.

Dairy cattle are also less efficient in converting feed to muscle, but value can be added through nutrition.

“Don’t manage them like your heifers. Make sure they are getting enough calories and in positive plane of nutrition,” she said. Like heifer calves, dairy steers should be started with adequate colostrum for long-term performance.

Limit-feeding is another good tool to add value. Steers should run out of feed in the bunk just a few hours before the next feeding.

Growth promoters can add value by increasing muscle deposition and decreasing fat deposition. Overall, younger cattle are already efficient in these areas and the time to use growth promoters is when they get older and less efficient. PD

PD Editor Karen Lee tweeted from the conference. Check out who retweeted some of her posts.

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