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More nutrition makes for healthier calves

Susan Day Published on 27 April 2010

In the last decade, better feed efficiency, optimal growth and higher future milk production have been the sought-after goals in calf nutrition. Recent on-farm nutrition trials are beginning to demonstrate the effects of a higher plane of nutrition within the first 12 weeks of life.

In one trial on a 2,500-cow dairy in Colorado, 53 calves were split in two groups. For 12 weeks, one group was fed a diet of whole milk and a 20 percent traditional calf starter, while the other group received whole milk and a 20 percent calf starter with added nutrition technology.

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During pre-weaning phase, calves experienced some health challenges. However, the group fed the technology-enhanced calf starter showed healthier calves and optimized feed consumption.

By the end of the 12-week trial, the dairy owner confirmed that calves in the technology group did not require as much attention, which helped him with typical veterinary expenses. These calves also consumed 26 more pounds of feed. According to trial data, these calves experienced an average daily gain of 1.88 pounds per day, which resulted in an average total weight gain of about 160 pounds per calf at 12 weeks of age. Calves fed traditional starter experienced an average daily gain of 1.56 pounds per day, resulting in an average weight gain of about 140 pounds per calf.

What does that mean?

Fifty percent of lifetime height gain and 25 percent of lifetime weight gain occurs in the first six months of a calf’s life. When calves are eating and growing well, we optimize their future potential.

Mike Olearnick, a Land O’Lakes Purina Feed dairy specialist, based in Colorado, administered this trial and said that the added savings from growing healthier calves was a pleasant surprise to the dairy producer. “Although these health challenges are common, they do represent setbacks in both the calf’s health and overall development, not to mention a dairy’s bottom line. The fact that the calves in the technology group continued to grow despite challenges really drove home the important role of nutrition,” he said.

Christie Stanley, Ph.D., a regional calf and heifer specialist from Land O’Lakes Purina Feed, who also helped administer this trial, credits the dairy producer’s careful record keeping in helping them realize the true value of better nutrition. Stanley advises dairy producers and calf growers to keep detailed records of observations and treatments and watch for patterns. “By knowing where you’re at in terms of costs, you’ll see areas for improvement that will direct you to where you want to be.”

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Impact on Crypto.

A separate study presented by the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine at the 2009 American Association of Bovine Practitioners annual conference indicates that a higher plane of nutrition can reduce the effect of health challenges due to Cryptosporidium parvum in pre-weaning dairy calves. The trial observed 29 Holstein bull calves over a 21-day span. Calves were enrolled in the study after a clean delivery and receiving four liters of heat-treated colostrum within one hour of birth. They were then randomly assigned to be fed either a conventional plane of nutrition or a high plane of nutrition using 28 percent protein, 20 percent fat milk replacer with soluble fiber technology.

When challenged with Crypto., calves fed the high plane of nutrition maintained hydration, had faster resolution of diarrhea, grew more and demonstrated greater feed efficiency than calves fed a conventional diet. In fact, calves on the conventional diet had weight loss, while calves on the higher plane of nutrition continued to grow in spite of the disease challenge.

Check your calf nutrition program

Producers interested in determining their current costs associated with health challenges in young calves (0 to 12 weeks) can use this simple worksheet to calculate costs for death loss and scours and pneumonia treatment expenditures:

A. Total number of calves (0 to 12 weeks)_____

B. Average rate of death loss _____%

C. Average rate of scours treatments _____%

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D. Average cost per treatment for scours $ _____

E. Average rate of pneumonia treatments _____%

F. Average cost per treatment for pneumonia $ _____

G. Average market value of calf $ _____

To calculate cost for death loss: (A*(B/100)*G)

To calculate cost for scours treatments: (A*(C/100)*D)

To calculate cost for pneumonia treatments: (A*(E/100)*F)

Once producers know the costs associated with health challenges, they can establish benchmarks for reducing these costs.

Good nutrition is truly an essential building block in developing a firm foundation for calves. To help calves reach their full potential, producers should provide a high-quality, high-protein feeding program to give them the nutrients and energy they need to grow and overcome health challenges. Even better, what’s good for calves is good for a dairy’s bottom line, too! PD

References omitted due to space but are available upon request by sending an email to .

Susan Day
  • Susan Day

  • Young Animal Technical Manager
  • Land O'Lakes Purina Feed
  • Email Susan Day

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