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Panelists share insight into raising healthy calves

Progressive Dairyman Editor Jenna Hurty Published on 11 June 2015

Raising calves is a challenge. Raising healthy calves is an even bigger challenge. At the Dairy Calf and Heifer Association’s annual conference held March 31 through April 1 in Madison, Wisconsin, three dairy producers shared their calf-raising protocols.

The panelists were: Darin Mann, M & M Feedlot, Parma, Idaho; Tracy Loos, Rosy-Lane Holsteins, Watertown, Wisconsin; and Aaron Harpster, Evergreen Farms, Spruce Creek, Pennsylvania. Here are some excerpts from the panel discussion.

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What is the flow from the maternity pen or from when they get on your operation all the way through weaning?

MANN: Our colostrum program is all over the board because we’re picking up calves from seven different dairies. These seven dairies fill the 10,000 head at the calf ranch. We bring in 60 head a day. It’s about 45 heifers and 15 bulls. [The dairies are] all getting about a gallon into the calves. They also dip the navels a couple times prior to us picking them up.

Every 24 hours, we pick them up and we re-dip the navel. When they’re back at our place, we weigh each calf individually, re-dip the navel again so you have it completely covered in iodine and take an ear notch to send off to check for BVD persistently infected animals. We give an intranasal vaccine then, and they’re put into the hutch.

We have two different hutch sizes. They start off in 4-foot-deep hutches. During those first couple weeks, where we are handling them quite a bit and feeding them, it allows us to do everything from the outside of the hutch. We don’t physically have to go into the hutch where we could contaminate stuff from our feet into those hutches.

At day 24, we remove the calves from the hutch and they go to hutches that are 8 feet deep so they have plenty of room. I like that also because they start with fresh bedding four weeks into the process, which helps with air quality toward the back end. Also, during the warm season there are a lot of flies, so we’re able to go through and really clean out that bedding and get rid of all those maggots and larva.

We coined a phrase, it’s called 24-24, so as long as the dairyman is taking care of the things they need to in the first 24 hours and we’re doing things in the first 24 days in our small hutches, it seems like that calf does great all the way through the program.

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We’re feeding them 3 quarts twice a day and we’re adjusting the solids depending on the time of the year. At day 49, we go to one feeding a day for two weeks, and at day 63 the milk is removed and they remain in the hutches for two more weeks. Around day 77 or 80, they are moved into the group pens in groups of 12.

When we remove them from the hutches, we have a chute that’s on a scale and four sorting pens. Each calf is individually weighed once again. We track the individual average daily gain of every single calf going through the system. That helps with culling decisions.

Most of [the dairymen] have too many heifers, so we’re able to look at the serum total protein score for the colostrum, their birthweight and treatments for respiratory and see what their ADG is. If they’re not converting feed to growth even by 2 to 2-and-a-half months old, they’re probably not going to be very good converters of feed to milk later on.

[The dairymen] are taking the lowest 2 percent of their animals and culling them. Why would I continue to feed an animal and push it through the system that’s never going to be a profitable cow for you? Beef prices are good; get rid of that animal early on and then I don’t have to worry about it down the road.

LOOS: Our calves are born in the maternity area. Within an hour of that calf being born, it’s fed a gallon of colostrum and moved to the calf barn. That’s where myself and my staff take over. The calf is then tagged and given its shots and dehorned within the first 24 hours.

Our calves are fed 3-quart bottles twice a day. They’ll stay on that for the first seven weeks. The last week, we’ll drop their feeding down to once a day just to start weaning them off and pushing the starter more.

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After weaning, they’re moved into group pens of 10. At 3-and-a-half months old, we train them how to stick their heads through the headlocks and lay in the sand stalls. By 4 months old, we put them on the TMR and they know how to do pretty much everything a cow knows how to do.

They’re housed in individual cubes for the first month, and at a month we’ve been trying to put them into group pens, between two and four calves, just for socializing and competition for feeding.

HARPSTER: We raise about 1,700 to 1,800 calves annually. We bed our calving pens with deep straw and move them when they’re a day old. Two quarts of colostrum is fed at two hours after birth and at eight to 10 hours, we follow up with another 2 quarts and calf jackets are administered [in the winter]. We have protocols for the shots and vaccinations we give them.

At 7 weeks old, we start tailing their milk consumption down to stimulate the increase of starter. About eight to 10 days after that, we move them to a weaning barn, which we built in the last couple years. We’re seeing very little death loss in the program. Until 4-and-a-half months, they’re in that weaning barn. It’s all-in, all-out. Then they’re in some headlock barns where we do some further vaccination.

We move heifers at 6 months old to three or four different satellite barns. Weaning through returning to the dairy herd, they probably see eight to 10 moves. That’s a challenge we have; we’re hauling cattle pretty much all of the time. It’s generally within a 15-mile radius. The farms we use are either rent or own.

Our older facilities we either rent or purchased, so we’re always chasing the efficiencies of having more barns to work with and also our next project. What group of heifers should we take care of? We’re always lagging behind on that, but since 2008 we built the two weaning barns and bought a lot more hutches for our wet calves, which has helped get them off to a good start.

What is your biggest challengeand what have you doneto overcome it?

MANN: One of my biggest challenges is labor. At the feedlot where we raise the older heifers, we have almost no turnover. I think the average years of employment over there is now pushing nine to 10 years, and there are 14 employees there.

At the calf facility – it’s not even two years old, June 1 it’ll be two years old – it has about 42 employees. I’m lucky if I keep people for a couple months, it seems like. The procedural drift, it’s not because of lack of training. It’s because there is always a new person there. It’s probably more my fault.

I think at the heifer facility, we’ve established a culture, and I don’t think we quite have that culture established at the calf facility, so it’s led to some high turnover. It’s a matter of them having more pride in their jobs and probably me recognizing them more for their accomplishments and thanking them and making sure they have adequate challenges to stay interested in their job.

LOOS: One of our biggest challenges is definitely procedural drift. We have our SOPs in place on what our employees should be doing. Sometimes, those don’t always get followed. We do a lot of training. We train, train and retrain some more. We take the time to work with each employee to make sure they really understand what they’re doing and that everything needs to be followed every day.

HARPSTER: Several things – some of it’s the turnover. It seems like there’s always that one position where it seems like we’re always rotating somebody through. All of the other ones are pretty good. Consistency of cleaning the bottles and some of the equipment is also a challenge for us.

It’s right where everybody can see, but they still seem to overlook it sometimes. It may be one of those things where it’s everybody’s responsibility, but nobody does it. It might be a little bit of a delegation thing from my crew.

When it comes to benchmarking, what do you measure? What are your standards? And how are those set?

MANN: We nasal swab quarterly and send those to Wisconsin. That gives us a pulse of what’s going on. The vet, if he needs to make any adjustments depending on the sensitivities and what’s going on, he can make those adjustments.

We’re testing our wells about every six months. We also have an ATP meter. There’s a list of several things, but we check the same things over and over just to see how we’re doing on our cleanliness and whatnot. If those things are in line, then the calf performance is generally there.

In the hutches, if I want a better ADG then I probably need to feed more, but we’re getting about that 1.5 or 1.6, and in cold weather 1.3 or 1.4 ADG in the hutch, but we’re consistently about 1.5. Once they go to the group pens and the corrals, they’re well over 2.5.

Once they go over to the heifer facility, we’re looking for 1.97 ADG from 6 months old to the breeding pens. Once they go to the breeding pens, they’re getting about a 1.87, and at gestation they’re getting a 1.83. The whole time they’re at the heifer facility, until about 20 months, they’re doing 1.88 ADG and that’s just to make sure they’re not overconditioned.

LOOS: We track our ADG and treatment rates. At the beginning of the year, I try to set our goals for the calf barn, and we share those with our veterinarian and our nutritionist. They give their input on where they’d like to see our calves, and we share that with our staff so we know what we’re working toward.

We have our vet come in and do the swabbing, making sure everything’s clean. He likes to do those surprise visits on the farm; I don’t even know when he’s coming, so it keeps everyone on their toes.

HARPSTER: We try to calve our first-calf heifers at 23 months. The numbers Darin [Mann] expressed are pretty similar to ours.

What is your feeding program like?

MANN: We predominantly feed pasteurized hospital milk. When we first started, we thought if our pasteurized milk is 5,000 or less on a standard plate count, we’re going to be doing OK, so we pull samples twice a week. We’re also testing just the pasteurized milk itself, not just the complete batch.

Two years in, our highest one has been estimated at 900 STP, so I think we’re doing a really good job at cleaning that hospital milk we’re feeding to the calves. Depending on how much milk we’re getting, 20 to 30 percent of the milk we feed is a liquid milk replacer. It comes to us as a 22-20, 35 percent solids. We use hot water to dilute that down to the feeding rate.

Since we’re picking up the hospital milk at seven different dairies, it comes in at seven different solids levels, so we have to average that out each day. Our average is 11.7 to 11.8 on the solids. We’re feeding at 13.5, so we’re using our milk replacer to boost those solids. We feed the hospital milk up-front and then the older calves that are just getting a once-a-day feeding.

If we have enough hospital milk, we feed all of the way through, but they’re probably getting milk replacer on the back end. Once a month, we’ll test to see what the milk is. We come very close to the 25-26 protein, 29-30 fat. Since the diet is predominantly hospital milk, the end feeding is often close to a 25-25.

We have an automated system that has a built-in weather system. We want our last bottle of milk to get to the calves at 105ºF. Our trailers hold 504 bottles. It takes us about 24 to 27 minutes to fill up the trailer, put the nipples on and hand out 504 bottles. That 504th bottle needs to be 105ºF.

Depending on the ambient temperature outside, it will tell us how fast that milk will cool during that 25- to 27-minute period and what temperature we need to make the milk. … My main guy who follows the milk trailer and makes sure the nipple goes through and the calves are getting up has a little thermometer in his vest. He’s checking constantly to make sure that we’re hitting that pretty close.

We feed water to those calves [3 to 17 days old] in a bottle. During the summer months, they still have a bucket in front of them, but during the winter months, it’s always freezing so much we just feed warm water in 3-quart bottles in between their two milk feedings. They go right at it.

LOOS: We feed milk replacer at our farm. Last winter, we were feeding a 22-20 and adjusting everything with water. We’ve slowly ramped our calves up to feed an accelerated program. Currently, we’re feeding a 28-15. The calves are looking great. The one thing I have to say about that is that you must be consistent and careful when you’re feeding it.

We track the temperature of the milk. We check the first bottle that goes out and the last bottle that goes out. We temp the milk while it’s mixing. We check every batch of milk with a Brix meter to make sure it’s consistent. You also need to make sure you have enough water available for those calves. I think the accelerated program is great, but it has to be managed closely.

We feed water in a bottle for the first two weeks. We do a low level of electrolytes for the first two weeks. I’ve found that if they are coming down with scours, it helps pull them through. We feed our water in stainless-steel buckets. It costs a little bit more, but they clean up nice. We wash our water pails three times a week. They’re not chewing on them, and they’re definitely worth the investment.

HARPSTER: We feed waste milk from the fresh cows and also from the dairy. We milk the fresh cows at a different site. When we run out of fresh cow milk, we’ll pull some milk from our mastitis cows and pasteurize it to feed the calves.

We add milk balancer to bring the solids up. We don’t really measure that closely. We adjust the amount of powder we put in based on the number of animals, but I don’t do a total solids on the milk and adjust every day for that. PD

Jenna Hurty
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