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Calves & Heifers

The future of your herd depends on quality colostrum, milk or replacer feeding and disease control along with proper bedding, sanitation and ventilation.

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Most calf deaths are attributed to infectious disease such as scours, septicemia, pneumonia. However, non-infectious problems cause most of the losses in the first two to three days, and these problems greatly increase the risk of later infectious disease problems, if they do not kill the calf right away. Management practices aimed at identifying and resolving these early problems are the most direct and cost-effective way to improve calf health.

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Imagine a dairy cow that gave 15,000 liters (33,000 pounds) of high-quality milk year after year after year at a high level of efficiency, a cow whose milk had health benefits for the consumer, a cow that got in calf when you wanted her to; a cow that was highly resistant to infections such as mastitis and whose milk had a consistently low somatic cell count, a cow that never suffered from acidosis and a cow that was never lame. Now imagine a herd of such cows, and imagine how profitable it would be.

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Editor’s note: The following benchmarks have been compiled using data reported by dairies enrolled in Alta’s AltaAdvantage program, a progeny testing program. More than 182,500 cows in 175 herds participate in the program nationwide.

The start of a long, profitable life for a cow is an easy, uneventful calving. Think of an easy, uneventful calving as the beginning of what I like to call the four-event cow. These cows have a calving, a breeding, a pregnancy check (where she is confirmed to the first breeding) and a dry off. No metabolic problems, no mastitis, no lameness, no hospital pen moves and only one breeding!

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Health problems in early lactation are costly and frustrating but, thankfully, mostly avoidable with proper close-up feeding programs. The time surrounding calving has a huge impact on a dairy’s profitability because of the health problems that can diminish productivity. Improving management and nutrition of transition cows is time well spent.

The transition period – three weeks before and three weeks after calving – is when the cow’s immune system is functionally suppressed, making her more vulnerable to illness. Numerous studies show that immunosuppression contributes to higher incidence of infectious disease and metabolic disorders.

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Producers know the consequences when temperatures reach 90°F or higher – heat stress-induced morbidity and mortality. Calves cannot regulate internal temperature beyond their thermal neutral zone, which makes them much more sensitive to heat, especially when humidity is high. Imagine wearing a leather coat in the summer.

Calves in heat stress conditions experience rapid dehydration, elevated body temperature, increased energy requirements and reduced food intake. The strain of maintaining normal body functions decreases the calf’s growth rate and your bottom line.

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In domesticated cattle production systems, animals rely on people to provide them with sufficient food, water and shelter to promote growth, productivity, health and welfare. Past research in dairy cattle nutrition has focused almost exclusively on the nutrient aspects of the diet and has led to many discoveries and improvements in dairy cattle health and production. However, despite many advances in the field of ruminant nutrition, we are still faced with the challenge of ensuring adequate dry matter intake (DMI) to maximize production and prevent disease, particularly with lactating dairy cows. As feeding behavior likely influences feed intake, it is important to understand the factors that influence this behavior. To date there has been limited work on how an increased understanding of animal behavior may provide valuable insights leading to improvements in feeding management practices.

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