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What we can learn from professional calf raisers

Jim Quigley Published on 18 January 2013

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Calf raising is a unique enterprise (some would say art). Rearing calves requires specialized knowledge, great attention to detail and a good amount of patience.

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Many dairy farmers consider raising heifers to be a “necessary evil” and would prefer not to raise heifers if they could run their dairy without the calf enterprise. Indeed, the development of specialized calf raisers is a testament to the idea of success through specialization.

During 2011, the USDA National Animal Health Monitoring System (NAHMS) surveyed professional calf raisers to find out how they managed their operations and what key factors affected their success in rearing calves.

One focus area was on colostrum management. Every dairy producer understands the importance of colostrum feeding; however, many studies show that, as an industry, we can still improve how we manage this critical time in a calf’s life.

It’s also interesting because colostrum management is not totally under the calf raiser’s control. Rather, it should happen on the home dairy before the calf is transported to the calf raiser’s farm.

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The USDA NAHMS study reported that 100 percent of operations administered colostrum at the farm of origin.

However, some calf raisers also administered colostrum to calves when they arrived at the calf-raising facility (or “ranch”). This points out very clearly the importance that many calf raisers attribute to colostrum feeding.

Colostrum can only be absorbed by the newborn calf for about 24 hours after birth. On some operations (particularly larger calf ranches), calves are picked up from dairies every day, so many calves may be less than 24 hours old on arrival at the calf ranch. This allows the calf raiser to administer colostrum after the calf arrives.

Also, even if calves arrive after 24 hours old, there’s still benefit to providing colostrum to young calves. Immunoglobulins in colostrum provide local immunity in the intestine, protecting against invasion from pathogens that the calf might ingest. Continued feeding of colostrum for two to three days is widely recommended and can help reduce the risk of diarrhea in young calves.

Since calf ranches don’t typically have colostrum available, the source of colostrum fed must come from the dairy of origin (or secondary dairy) or from commercial sources (colostrum supplements).

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The NAHMS study reported that producers used several different sources of colostrum ( Table 2 ) and more than 50 percent of calf ranches used a commercial colostrum product to feed calves.

A final observation made as part of the NAHMS study was related to measurement of total serum proteins in calves less than 1 week old. Measuring total serum protein is quick, easy and inexpensive.

It provides a reliable estimate of the success (or failure) of passive immunity in the calf and the relative risk the animal is susceptible to disease. Total serum proteins greater than 5.2 grams per deciliter are associated with lower risk of disease; calves with lower serum protein are more likely to get sick and die.

Many calf-rearing operations monitor serum proteins. In fact, over 72 percent of large calf-raising operations routinely monitor total serum protein on incoming calves. On the other hand, only about 5 percent of the smallest calf raisers routinely monitored serum protein.

On the largest operations, it’s likely that specific personnel are responsible for collecting serum and measuring total protein, thus making this task more routine.

Many calf raisers report the average serum proteins to their dairy customers. These reports are often sent monthly and summarize all the dairies served by the calf ranch.

This can provide meaningful feedback to each dairy manager – when the dairy’s average calf serum protein begins to fall or is consistently lower than the other farms, the manager can provide reinforcement and retraining to his staff. This type of report is very effective in improving overall colostrum management on the dairy – and calf health in general.

Another interesting observation made by NAHMS researchers was that 79 percent of calf ranches in the western U.S. monitored serum protein (regardless of herd size), whereas only 32 percent of ranches in the eastern U.S. monitored serum protein.

While this may be due to herd size differences (more larger ranches in the West), there appears to be a greater understanding of the value of serum protein monitoring by Western calf raisers.

This USDA NAHMS study provides important information on current management of calf raisers in the U.S. Click here to view the full report. PD

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Jim Quigley
Technical and Research Manager – Calf and Heifer
Cargill Premix & Nutrition

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