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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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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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Meeting fresh cow nutritional needs is critical to increased milk production and profitability. How cows are fed and cared for during the transition period – the three weeks before and three weeks after calving – sets the stage for milk production in the entire subsequent lactation.

If dairy managers can prevent a decrease in dry matter intake (DMI) and the onset of metabolic disorders (the issues that negatively impact cows during the transition period) the entire lactation falls into place, asserts Michael DeGroot, a dairy nutrition and management consultant near Fresno, California. Prevention of these issues translates into improved production and reproduction in the next lactation, he believes, adding real dollars to a dairy operation’s profit potential.

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Visiting other dairies, I’ve noticed that oftentimes, the heifer program gets overlooked. Sure, the silage looks great, the office is spotless and the cows are eating a nice ration. But the heifers fend for themselves in overcrowded pens eating throwbacks from the cows (that is, if the dairyman doesn’t consider this “wasting” it). When confronted with this issue, the usual response is, “Well, they’ll get the good stuff when they start making money.” Granted, especially during times of low milk prices, cutbacks have to start somewhere.

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Over the past few years, dry cow management has been re-examined with respect to nutrition housing and health. This [article] focuses on new ideas in lighting for dry cows and altering the length of the dry period as methods to improve overall productivity and health during the transition and subsequent lactation.

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