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Tommells focus on gain, not frame, for dairy-beef calves

Tamara Scully for Progressive Dairyman Published on 11 March 2019

Raising crossbred calves for the beef market requires intensive management with a focus on calf health and nutrition. Getting calves off to a good start, and getting them to grow well, necessitates providing a low-stress environment and feeding for gain.

“It starts with the nutrition of these calves. From the beginning, they must have the best colostrum you can find,” Nicole Tommell, farm business management specialist with the regional New York Dairy, Livestock and Field Crops Program, told beef and dairy farmers in attendance at the recent New York Beef Producers’ Association annual conference.

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Tommell, along with her husband Marc, raises crossbred calves on their New York farm, MMT Cattle Inc. They raise calves for the packing house market and also raise calves up to 500 pounds for sale to large Midwestern feedlots.

The wet calves are purchased from auction or through private sale. From the beginning, they focus on managing calves to maximize gain. Their grain-based feeding program is the same as for calf-fed, dairy-beef animals. This means that from day one, calves are fed a grain diet to prime the rumen for putting on gain with grains rather than utilizing forages as a cow is built to do. In other words, they aren’t backgrounded, but are fed for the feedlot from birth.

“The dairy-beef crossbred calf and the Holstein calf really aren’t that much different” when feeding for the beef market, Tommell said. But “dairy grows differently,” and feeding a calf to enter the dairy replacement herd is not the same as feeding for the beef market.

Pre-weaning

When a calf arrives at Tommell’s farm, it is left to rest. Without knowing their individual history, “all we do is take it easy on these cows,” she explained. “It’s important to let them chill.”

With high cortisol levels from stress, it’s unlikely vaccinations given immediately would be fully effective. They don’t vaccinate until two weeks after arrival.

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Individual hutches are deep-bedded to allow calves to nest properly. A bed of gravel, covered with sawdust and deep-bedded with straw, is used in winter. In summer, they add more sawdust and less straw. This keeps calves warm and dry, reducing stress and allowing calves to put their energy into gaining weight.

The goal is to wean them early so they can put on that gain. “If these calves are bedded well, and they’re dry … I can get them off of milk,” Tommell said.

Calves receive a 20:20 milk replacer, fed two or three times per day depending on environmental conditions, until 45 days after arrival. They also use waste milk from their dairy farm, the preferred choice, which is pasteurized on-site when available. The milk or milk replacer is fed at 105ºF, “the perfect temperature,” Tommell said. “You don’t want the calf to burn off the energy from the milk.”

Grain is put in front of the calves from day one on the farm. They receive a full-concentrate grain and a protein pellet with minerals. The corn mash and 18 percent protein pellet is constantly available, kept fresh and never allowed to be depleted.

Calves are also provided fresh water at all times. The water is warmed in the milk tanker and delivered to each hutch’s water bucket one hour after milk is fed. Without constant water intake, calves won’t eat the grain.

The period through to weaning is “the most labor intensive” on the farm. Tommell explained that each calf is observed daily, outside of their hutch. The hutches, particularly for crossbred calves – which may be more temperamental than dairy breeds – need to be sturdy and may need to be weighted down.

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Weaned calves

Once weaned, approximately 45 days after arrival and typically around 250 pounds, calves are kept in their individual hutches until days 55-60, to allow effective revaccination before being moved into larger groups. These groups are fed at automatic group grain feeders where feed is, again, never allowed to run out.

No forages are fed, with the grain and concentrate continuing to be fed exclusively. Once at 600 pounds, under the advisement of their nutritionist, they will add a very small amount of forage, typically two to three pounds, as needed.

“We want to keep them monogastric,” Tommell emphasized. “We’re training them because naturally, cattle shouldn’t be like that.”

Grain feeding changes the rumen, lengthening the papillae, so that these calves become very good at converting feed. This is opposite of the goal when feeding dairy replacement heifers, that need to be fed forages to optimize milk production.

When raising dairy or crossbred calves for beef, producers want to develop a “block-type animal,” rather than feeding silage or forages, which help to “express dairy genetics,” she said. These animals “don’t finish well if they gain a lot of frame.”

If calves are already at 300 pounds upon arrival to the farm, they must be transitioned to the all-grain diet, however, as they may be used to hay and forages. In this case, hay is top-dressed with concentrate for a two-week period, prior to going to the full-grain concentrate. Close observation for gut health issues is warranted, she said.

Tommell does implant calves in order to maximize growth and encourages beef producers to consider this as a necessary strategy.

After weaning and up to 300 pounds, housing is in small group pens, using super hutches with three to four calves in each. By moving calves to small group housing first, rather than putting them immediately into larger groups, they are better able to observe each individual and keep stress levels down. In the super hutch housing, calves must come out into the pen to eat.

No matter what type of calf housing is being used, adequate ventilation to prevent disease every step of the way is key. “Air exchange is very, very important with calves,” Tommell said. “Every single facility is different,” but proper ventilation is always imperative.

Financially, the model outlined above does work in today’s market. However, Tommell expressed concern that when corn prices increase, the model could fail.

Calf-fed beef, whether dairy or crossbred, has to meet beef industry standards. Adding the right type of gain through an aggressive feeding strategy, while maintaining calf health, is the route to success.  end mark

Tamara Scully, a freelance writer based in northwestern New Jersey, specializes in agricultural and food system topics.

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