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Maximizing health and profitability of your future herd

Victor Cortese Published on 22 May 2015

holstein calves

Recent research by Cornell University is taking a fresh look at the first 60 days of the calf’s life. The focus of the research is on perinatal programming, or what happens after birth that determines the ability of a calf to achieve its genetic potential for growth and production. The research has concentrated on three areas:

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1.The impact of various non-immune components found in colostrum

2.The impact of early nutrition on future production

3.The long-term effect of early diseases

Colostral impact

The long-term impact of colostrum on health and growth has long been documented in dairy calves. More recent research has also shown the impact on future milk production through several lactations. It is believed that this is driven by the non-immune components of colostrum.

These include insulin-like growth factor-I (IGF), IGF-II, lactoferrin, leptin, prolactin, insulin, relaxin, essential and non-essential amino and fatty acids. While the exact activity of these various hormones and nutrients is not known, it is believed that they establish the ability of the intestinal tract to utilize or convert feed for growth and milk production and may even be involved in reproductive development.

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Thus, using health outcomes in calves as the measurement of a good colostrum program is not a bad first measurement. However, it may give a false sense that enough good-quality colostrum is being fed and may not optimize future performance at that feeding level. While many articles have been written on colostrum feeding, the basics are always quality, quantity, cleanliness of the colostrum and the timing of the feedings in a good colostrum program.

Early nutrition and growth

The most recent work has looked at the correlation between early growth and future milk production. Pioneering work by Drs. Michael Van Amburgh at Cornell University and Fernando Soberon, ruminant technical services manager at Shur-Gain, showed that the impact of growth on future milk production is set by 56 to 60 days old.

Increasing average daily gain in the first 60 days of life directly correlates to increased milk production; each 10th of a pound increase in average daily gain through day 56 generated an additional 250 pounds of milk in the first lactation. The recommended minimum goal is to double the birthweight of the calf by 56 days old and then to work on increasing that even more.

Holstein calves are certainly able to routinely achieve an average daily gain of more than 2 pounds during this time frame. This also means vaccines and procedures that adversely impact average daily gain in the first 60 days of life should be minimized and, when possible, moved to after this critical period.

Early disease

Research has repeatedly shown the long-term impact of early respiratory and digestive disease on the future performance of cattle. While it is no surprise that severe disease can be devastating to future production, even the long-term impact of a more mild disease that responds to treatment can be significant.

Early respiratory disease has the worst effect on future performance. For calves younger than 3 months old treated a single time for respiratory disease, there is a 2.4-fold increase in the risk of death even up to 2 years old, reduced growth rates through first calf and decreased milk production in the first two lactations. Heifers that experienced early respiratory disease are also more likely to have calving complications.

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The long-term effect of mild cases of diarrhea is not as dramatic. Some studies have shown that mild scours has no significant impact on future milk production. However, if scours decreases average daily gain in the first 60 days of life, or if our treatment kills beneficial gut flora (thereby affecting average daily gain), milk production can decrease by more than 1,000 pounds per lactation.

The studies all show that the correct start of the calf can have a dramatic effect on its long-term performance. The research indicates that dairymen must be proactive in newborn calf management.

Colostrum management and minimizing disease are certainly important goals, but monitoring and working toward increased growth rates in the first 60 days of life is equally important. Improving the quality and quantity of feed in this crucial period will give them a return on their investment both in the short and long term. PD

PHOTO
For calves younger than 3 months old treated a single time for respiratory disease, there is a 2.4-fold increase in the risk of death even up to 2 years old, reduced growth rates through first calf and decreased milk production in the first two lactations. Photo byPDstaff.

Victor Cortese
Director of Cattleand Equine Immunology
Zoetis Animal Health

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