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Correct calf care basics to enhance nutrition solutions

Gene Boomer and Jeff Weyers for Progressive Dairyman Published on 24 May 2016

A sound nutrition program grounded in research-proven ingredients forms the foundation for success and helps dairies achieve productivity goals.

But there are limits to what nutrition can do when underlying health or management challenges undermine animal performance. Instead of successful outcomes, these circumstances set the stage for subpar results and disappointing execution.

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For instance, we recently worked with a large, Midwest dairy that raised all of its own replacement heifers and struggled periodically with outbreaks of scours caused by Cryptosporidium. While their calf mortality was low, disease incidence occurred more often than desired.

Scours afflicted approximately half of the farm’s calves at 6 to 10 days old – and required several days of electrolyte treatments before the cases ran their course. At a treatment cost of approximately $30 per calf ($2.50 per electrolyte dose three times for four days), veterinary expenses for this problem were not insignificant.

In the hopes of increasing calf health and productivity gains, the dairy decided to improve its calf nutrition program. They began to explore the benefits of refined functional carbohydrates (RFC) as a means to increase heifer-rearing productivity and reduce disease incidence. RFCs, which have been shown to reduce incidence, severity and duration of cryptosporidiosis, are the components harvested from yeast cells (S. cerevisiae) using specific enzymes during the manufacturing process.

This enzymatic hydrolysis yields mannan oligosaccharides, (1,3-1,6) beta glucans and D-Mannose.

In essence, RFCs bind to pathogens, rendering them harmless to the animal. They also act as a prebiotic by feeding the beneficial bacteria of the intestine while blocking sites for attachment by pathogens.

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Although they can be a successful partner in improving calf health and performance, no single tool can overcome overwhelming odds. When problems arise in a calf operation, management needs to take action and address underlying issues for the program to be successful.

The pre-introduction assessment

Prior to a nutrition intervention, management needs to do a full assessment of the calf program to know where their challenges are. In our example dairy’s case, that meant doing two things:

  1. It conducted an audit of current feeding practices and hygiene.

  2. The dairy then set goals for success, including milk sample bacteria thresholds, disease incidence and treatment levels.

Once it took these actions, the dairy was able to discover the underlying factors that sabotaged successful outcomes. In addition, farm personnel then knew what success really looked like so they could continue to make well-informed management decisions.

The discovery process

Once you know what your challenges and goals are, evaluate your calf program’s practices and procedures to see what you and your team need to do to meet the standards you set for yourself. Re-evaluate your protocols to see if they are able to produce your desired results.

Table 1 shows key areas to investigate to help keep pathogens in check and calf-feeding programs on the right path. Proper hygiene is critical for success; implement a routine testing program to monitor program effectiveness and prevent pathogen populations from escaping control.

Key areas to investigate to help keep pathogens in check

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In the case of our example dairy, they needed a way to conquer the Cryptosporidium, which was consistently causing scouring in calves less than 10 days old. With that in mind, they decided to evaluate the calf-feeding program’s practices and procedures next.

The dairy sampled colostrum after collection and found that bacterial counts were well below predetermined threshold levels. However, they quickly determined that colostrum management practices after collection were less-than-ideal; colostrum was not being cooled quickly enough, allowing bacteria to swiftly multiply prior to feeding.

Next, they took pre- and post-pasteurization milk samples, and bacterial levels fell within acceptable ranges. However, bacterial counts greatly exceeded established thresholds for samples of milk taken from milk delivery tanks at the end of the feeding shifts.

They also discovered that one of the feeding shifts was not consistently following cleaning protocols, meaning milk sometimes collected in the delivery tank, allowing for rapid bacterial development.

Furthermore, the feeding shift in question was taking longer than expected to deliver milk, so it was in the delivery tank several hours longer than for other shifts. This, too, allowed for bacteria populations to rapidly rise above acceptable levels during the feeding shift.

The remedy

Now that you’ve established where your problem areas are, it’s time to take action. This means making sure your personnel are properly trained and understand your protocols to ensure they follow them fully and correctly.

It also means checking to see if there are protocols you need to change in order to meet your new standards.

In the case of our example dairy, this meant retraining maternity pen personnel on proper colostrum management techniques and giving calf feeders a refresher on milk delivery and equipment sanitation protocols to improve the quality of milk being fed to calves.

As a final measure, they updated the milk delivery tank plumbing and replaced the rubber hoses to reduce bacterial contamination of milk fed to calves.

Additionally, they began to do weekly testing at various points in the milk collection, pasteurization and delivery system to better monitor bacterial levels.

Once these changes were made, bacterial counts in all samples promptly decreased, and the calves were no longer being exposed to high levels of bacteria. Consequently, the dairy saw a drastic decrease in the number of calves they treated for scours, and those that did contract scours recovered much more quickly.

The outcome

Because of this, the dairy began to see the results they desired when they first added RFCs to their nutrition program. Their calves were healthier, and they could spend their energy on growth – not fighting bacteria.

Dairies will never be able to eliminate all bacterial pathogens, but when basic health and hygiene protocols are in place, calves are better able to withstand insults to their system.

In addition, RFCs can help minimize the impact of some of these challenges, leaving more energy available for gaining weight and frame size instead of it being used by the immune system.  PD

Jeff Weyers is technical service manager – central region for Arm & Hammer Animal Nutrition.

References omitted but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.

Gene Boomer
  • Gene Boomer

  • Technical Service Manager – Western Region
  • Arm & Hammer Animal Nutrition
  • Email Gene Boomer

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