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Two Indiana calf operations focus on 6 key management areas for calf health

Somula Schwoeppe for Progressive Dairyman Published on 13 April 2017
dairy calves

Dr. Ryan Leiterman, director of technical services, Crystal Creek Natural LLC, veterinarian and agricultural engineer specializing in calf barn ventilation and on-farm troubleshooting, facilitated the calf feeding panel discussion held during the Indiana Dairy Producers Forum (Feb. 1-2, French Link, Indiana).

Leiterman focused on the importance of colostrum and its ability to help calves fight infection. He said, “Colostrum contains more than just antibodies to fight infection; it also has actively functioning, live white blood cells from the dam. When a calf is fed colostrum, these white blood cells will be absorbed across the calf's intestinal wall and enter the bloodstream. Once in the calf's bloodstream, the white blood cells play an important part in actively fighting infection and keeping the calf healthy.”

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The calf feeding panel discussion following his presentation covered the six most important areas for raising calves – colostrum and colostrum management, calories and calf feeding, bedding, air quality, sanitation and vaccination.

Brian Houin and Wes Obert

Panel speakers were Brian Houin, Homestead Dairy LLC in Plymouth, Indiana, and Wes Obert, Legacy Dairy in Fort Branch, Indiana. Both panelists utilize auto feeders and air tube ventilation, and use the all-in, all-out approach to sanitation.

Leiterman stated, “When it comes to managing calves, you can only manage what you can measure and monitor. These farms have found success in their calf rearing operations by focusing on the six key calf management areas.”

LEITERMAN: How do you manage colostrum feeding on your farm?

HOUIN: Our current colostrum program is we individually milk the cow right after she has the calf and use the optical Brix refractometer to measure the sugar level – 23 is our cut off and we are averaging 27. We do this to ensure the quality of the colostrum and immediately feed the calf one gallon of colostrum. If there is any excess, we label it, note the quality and refrigerate it. If it is a heifer calf, we feed it another half-gallon six hours later. At day three we pull blood on all the females so we can figure out exactly what the protein scores are for monitoring. Currently, about 98 percent of our calves are above 6 on blood protein scores.

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I feel colostrum is really important because it is our first chance to affect the lives of our calves. We have strict protocols in place to measure and monitor, ensuring each calf is treated the same and gets the amount of colostrum they need. We have done this for four or five years and have really improved our results with the calves since we stopped pooling the colostrum. Our biggest challenge is getting the second feeding of colostrum into the calves. We went three months without a single case of scours. One of the things we are trying to fix is to cool the colostrum faster.

OBERT: We milk the cows immediately and push our guys to get colostrum into the calves within two hours of birth. We prefer to feed fresh colostrum but do also freeze colostrum. We have issues with freezing colostrum, making sure it is cooled and frozen fast. Our goal is to feed a gallon at birth, and we have a sheet of paper in the calving pen for documentation. We note the cow who calved, the sex of the calf, time of birth, time of colostrum feeding, if it’s fresh or frozen colostrum, and we write everything down to have a way to quantify everything that is going on with the calves. We also use a digital Brix refractometer; 21 is our cut off, and most of the time, we are in the 23 to 26 range. We also keep some powder on hand for emergencies, but we really push to feed fresh or frozen colostrum. As soon as the cow is milked, we get the calf fed, and if there is colostrum left over, we put it in double Ziploc bags – 1 quart per bag – cool it in an ice-water bath and get it frozen fast. This speeds thawing time too.

Wes Obert with auto calf feeder

LEITERMAN: Please describe your vaccination program.

HOUIN: The heifer facilities are an hour from the calving facilities. The maternity guys are responsible for colostrum feeding, tagging the calf and of course dipping the navels. When the calves arrive at the calf facilities every morning, we get the birthweight, Inforce and Ultrabac, take a genetic sample and dehorn. We give lidocaine and use paste, covered with duct tape. This has been unbelievable. The calf doesn’t feel anything; the dehorning is done and over with. You don’t have to catch the calf a month later and always be behind with the dehorning. The way we are doing it now – it is one of the first things and it is taken care of – we don’t get behind with it. We give the second round of Inforce at three weeks, and they do not get any more vaccines until they are 5 months of age.”

OBERT: We are doing about the same thing, using Ultrabac; we also give a shot of selenium at birth, Inforce 3 and antitoxin C & D for clostridium.

Wes Obert with calves

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LEITERMAN: Please describe your calf feeding program.

HOUIN: We are on the 40 Fit program; the calf is allowed to drink up to 24 liters a day. They can come in every two and a half hours and drink up to 2 liters each time. The first five days they cannot have more than 2 liters at a feeding; day six to day 20 they can have up to 2.5. Then at day 21 they can get 3 liters at a feeding. Of course, this depends on the calf; our groups will typically average 13 liters and six feedings a day. Some calves are eating 8 liters a day, and some calves are pushing 20. What I have found very interesting is I had assumed with the higher variation in feed consumption, I would see higher variation in the size of calves, but with the last group of claves I raised out in the huts, there was actually way more variation when those calves were fed the strict three course, three times a day versus the auto-feeder barn.

The only thing I can say is it has to be something with feed efficiency; some calves are more efficient than others, and those that are only consuming 8 liters must be more efficient than the calves consuming 16. Whether there is proof behind that, I don’t know, but all I do know is with the auto feeder, my calves are more uniform than they have ever been. We are feeding whole milk and adding 20 grams of a 30 percent protein and 5 percent fat balancer product. We dose in 20 grams per liter. We tried fine-tuning this and testing the milk with the Brix and then said, “Forget it. It’s working. Let’s stick with it.” One thing we noticed is we have a lot less sucking issues with the auto feeder than when we used the huts.

OBERT: We basically have three different management styles. On our auto feeder, we set that on 8 liters a day, and after hearing Brian, we maybe need to push that a bit. Those calves come into the auto feeder at 3 weeks of age, and we keep them on the feeder for 21 days. In the individual pens, calf hutches, we feed them three times a day with 2 pounds of powder at each feeding. I will echo what Brian said on the auto feeders: We do not see the sucking problems with the calves. We feed a 22 percent starter textured feed, and at weaning we switch them to an 18 percent whole corn mix.  end mark

Somula Schwoeppe
  • Somula Schwoeppe

  • Dairy Producer and Freelance Writer
  • Huntingburg, Indiana

PHOTO 1: Photo by Mike Dixon.

PHOTO 2: Participants of the calf feeding panel discussion at the Indiana Dairy Forum were Brian Houin, left, and Wes Obert, right.

PHOTO 3: At Legacy Dairy in Fort Branch, Indiana, Wes Obert says calves come into the auto feeder at 3 weeks of age and are kept on the feeder for 21 days.

PHOTO 4: Wes Obert manages six key areas for healthy calves: colostrum and colostrum management, calories and calf feeding, bedding, air quality, sanitation and vaccination. Photos by Somula Schwoeppe.

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