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Taking good care of the babies

John Hibma Published on 01 March 2010
Tom Peracchio and calves

Your baby calves represent the future of your dairy herd. The future in terms of genetic potential, herd size, milk production and profitability. Getting lots of heifers into the milking herd as soon as possible increases your bottom line by both improving your herd’s average as well as reducing overall heifer-raising costs.

Heifer- raising costs are the second-highest cost on your dairy next to milk cow feed costs. It’s always disappointing to not see herds improving any faster than they do because of poorly managed calf-raising programs. Getting your babies off to a strong start and getting them milking as soon as you can will make you money – not cost you money.

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According to dairy farmer Tom Peracchio, a well-managed and properly constructed calf-raising facility makes the often challenging job of calf raising a much easier task. Tom Peracchio, along with his bother, Bill, milk 230 cows at their Hytone Dairy in Coventry, Connecticut. The brothers have been raising their replacement heifers in a 120-foot-by-35-foot greenhouse-style hoop barn for more than six years. At one end of the plastic-roofed structure, which is designed to handle about 50 animals, are the newborn calves housed in individual wire pens, measuring 4 feet by 6 feet on a sand-bedded floor. On the opposite end of the barn are several pens of various sizes for increasingly larger groups once the calves are weaned. A concrete driveway and feedbunk on that end of the barn makes for easy cleaning of mangers and pens. Both ends of the barn can be opened for summer ventilation and zipped up tight when winter temperatures get down to 0°F and icy winds make it even colder.

“We like this setup because it allows all of us to keep a better eye on the calves,” Tom says. “When you have a comfortable place like this to work, you automatically spend more time watching for any problems.”

Peracchio noted that back when the calves were still in outside hutches it was easy to miss a calf that might have a cough – especially on bitterly cold days when being out in the elements was a painful experience. It’s difficult to save a calf when she’s gone untreated for a couple of days because no one sees she’s sick. The new barn has dramatically reduced health challenges and the mortality rate is less than 5 percent.

A calf is born with a high susceptibility to disease and a rumen that is non-functioning. To help get through that critical period, nature intended for baby calves to nurse with their dams in order to receive the passive immunity provided by the mother’s colostrum. Feeding colostrum to newborn calves has been shown to greatly increase their survival rates. Hopefully every dairy farm gets 2 to 4 quarts of high-quality colostrum into newborn calves within the first few hours after birth. The calf’s ability to absorb the immunoglobulin provided in the colostrum is significantly reduced by 16 hours after birth – and by 36 hours, colostrum is of little benefit in providing protection from disease.

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Newborn calves at Peracchios all get a gallon of colostrum just as soon as possible after birth, and navels are dipped in iodine, as well. A feeding tube is used, if necessary, to get colostrum into a calf. If a calf is born during a particularly nasty stretch of cold weather she’s placed in a plywood box with a heating lamp. The only other prophylactic treatment administered after birth is a stomach bolus for prevention of scours.

The Peracchios then feed the babies a combination of whole milk and powdered milk twice-a-day. The goal for weaning is 35 days after birth, and the weaning process begins at 30 days, at which time the milk is reduced to one feeding per day. A pelleted calf grain is introduced a few days after birth, and the calves slowly begin nibbling on it.

A key component to a successful calf-raising program on any dairy farm is avoiding stress. Weaning and regrouping of calves are particularly stressful times for them. Peracchios’ calves receive half the ration of milk for five days, after which the milk is removed from the diet. At Day 35 the calves are taken out of the individual pens and put into a group pen with no more than four or five other calves being weaned around the same time. Several weeks later that small group will be combined with an older group in a larger pen designed for 8 to 10 calves. The entire process is intended to keep stress to a minimum when calves are introduced to a new environment. Plenty of room is provided to move around as well as ample bunk space to eat. The diet for the weaned calves is a good quality hay along with the same calf pellet.

By the time the heifers are 6 months old they are introduced to silage – both corn and haylage – while still incorporating the calf pellet to supply minerals and vitamins. This is done to methodically keep stress to a minimum while introducing the heifers to feedstuffs that they will be eating as adult milk cows.

A novel idea implemented by the Peracchios is to introduce the calves to freestalls at this early age. The “trainer freestalls” are simple sand-bedded stalls with wooden “railings” intended to mimic the steel freestalls the heifers will be moved to several weeks later. According to the Peracchios, when the heifers finally encounter the real freestalls later on, they know what to do with them. It has virtually eliminated the problems of heifers lying down in the alleyways after they freshen.

Calf-raising programs and calf-raising facilities on dairies do not have to be complicated or expensive. They just have to remain sensible and manageable. The goal of your calf- raising program should be to keep calf mortality to an absolute minimum and getting those babies off to an excellent start, resulting in big, healthy heifers that will be highly productive milk cows. PD

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PHOTO 1: Bill, left, and Tom Peracchio stand in a hoop barn where they raise 50 newborn calves. It can be opened or closed depending on the needs of the animals. Photo by John Hibma.

PHOTO 2: Tom and Bill Peracchio have been raising their replacement heifers in a 120-foot-by-35-foot greenhouse-style hoop barn for more than six years. Photo by John Hibma.

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