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Additives in starting programs: What is too much?

Steve Blezinger Published on 20 November 2013

Virtually every dairy producer who raises calves has a “program” of some type for getting these young animals off to a good start.

The basics, such as timely feeding of colostrum and good hutch sanitation, are core to that program. There are some things that can’t be done “too well” to get highly susceptible animals up and going.

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Along with these basics come sound nutrition and health practices. What are the right things to feed, and what are the appropriate vaccines and other injections that should be given? For the most part, if you put four calf managers in the same room, you will get four – maybe even five – different opinions.

As a dairy nutritionist, I commonly get to work with calf programs and often get called into problem situations where the performance is just not where it should be.

Often what I find is that the basics (good colostrum, good sanitation, sound animal management) are not what they should be, and a cocktail of feed additives as well as vaccines or other injections are being used as a band-aid to compensate. We’re going to focus on the additive part of this picture here.

A laundry list of products

Producers have a long list of additive-type products at their disposal.

These include antibiotics, antibodies (IgGs, IgYs), colostrum supplements, electrolyte supplements, minerals, vitamins, bacterial cultures, fungal fermentation products or extracts, yeasts, beta glucans, mannan oligosaccharides (MOS), enzymes, essential oils, fatty acids, amino acids, toxin binders, etc.

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The list is extensive, especially when we start evaluating individual products within each of these categories. Then the list goes from being extensive to exhausting.

So as a calf manager whose focus is to get calves off to the best start, keeping them healthy and productive through their lives, how does he determine which of these or which combination of these to use? The questions are daunting to say the least.

Ultimately the question becomes: “What is the right combination to use, and what is too much?”

Looking for the right combination

Every calf producer is looking for just the right combination of products or programs to get calves off to a sound health start. Given the options the producer has, ultimately there are countless variations in how to develop the starting program.

Starting with the basics is critical, including late-lactation and dry cow nutrition and management programs, clean and low-stress calving conditions, good calving management, feeding of quality colostrum and sanitary housing.

From there, it becomes a matter of managing the stress and the young animal’s immune system. This is where later-lactation and dry cow feeding and management lay the foundation for fetal development, especially the development of the initial passive immune system.

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This can be particularly critical in developing first-calf heifers where some programs may limit nutrient intake for economic reasons.

As calves are born and placed into hutches or other housing, this is where additive use becomes a focus.

Some producers have a tendency to throw a wide variety of products at the young animal, often confounding the animal’s ability to respond and ultimately causing more problems than might otherwise develop. Remember the following standards:

  • Good colostrum within the first three to four hours of birth – Every newborn calf should receive 4 quarts of clean, quality colostrum (or 10 percent of their birthweight).
  • Housing needs to be clean, dry and comfortable – Calf pens should be cleaned on a regular basis, and bedding replaced regularly. Calves housed outdoors during wet weather need dry bedding and regular attention to avoid the build-up of mud and manure.
  • Proper ventilation – Air movement in the environment around the calf keeps the concentration of potentially harmful gases (ammonia, methane) and airborne pathogens low. This is especially important for calves housed indoors. However, drafts should be kept in check.
  • Milk, feed and water – Feed young calves proper levels of milk multiple times daily, as well as water and grain free-choice. Keep water clean and fresh and grain dry and fresh.

After the producer confirms that all the basics are in place, one important concept has to be remembered: The calf is born with essentially no functional immune system.

The placental-uterine connection (epitheliochorial placenta) prevents the transmission of immunoglobulins (antibodies) from the cow to the fetus.

The immune system begins developing initially from the consumption of colostrum and then subsequent exposure to the environment. The calf’s immune system has to be supported nutritionally in an effort to provide the building blocks for development.

Simultaneously, there are a variety of tools the producer can use to assist the animal’s immune system as it develops, essentially carrying some of the load.

In many cases, calf managers – in an effort to cover every possible base – will flood the animal’s system with any and every additive previously listed. In many cases, conventional-fed antibiotics is the tool of choice to attempt to protect the animal from the wide variety of pathogens that may affect the young calf.

But consider a couple of thoughts: First, for effective function of an antibiotic, an immune system “platform” must be in place. If the immune system is not developed adequately, the fed antibiotics may not function as desired.

Second, for the first few weeks of life, a calf has a relatively fragile system. Subsequently, use of high or continuous levels of powerful antibiotics can actually create a stressful situation that may antagonize the situation. These two points considered, very judicial use of fed antibiotics is indicated.

Developing a plan to correctly utilize additives

As in all cases, common sense needs to prevail. Common sense tells us that taking the shotgun approach in a receiving program is not a great idea.

Common sense also tells us that there are no silver bullets and because this is biology we are working with, things change. What works today may not work two weeks from now. So to move forward the calf manager needs to ask some questions:

1. Are all the basics as listed above (colostrum, sanitary housing, ventilation, proper feed and water) in place? If not, then this needs to be addressed first. No additive can overcome what might be lacking in the basics.

2. Is the feeding program well balanced (milk or milk replacer, starter feed, clean water) to promote growth and support of the immune system?

In my experience, one common problem is that many calf starters are inadequate in protein and other critical nutrients (amino acid balance, trace minerals, fat-soluble and water-soluble vitamins).

Remember, the newborn calf is essentially a monogastric and needs to be fed as such. But it also needs to be fed to promote rumen development.

3. Are there components in place to assist the developing immune system during these early days of life? This is where the additives come in. Immune system support tools can include proper nutrient feeding including copper, zinc, manganese, selenium and many of the vitamins.

Additionally careful and judicious use of products such as hyperimmunized egg products, prebiotics and probiotics, including bacteria, yeast, MOS, beta glucans and essential oils (plant extracts). Each of these products performs a unique function in the young animal’s digestive system.

These components best serve the animal when they are in place prior to a pathogenic assault (fed prophylactically) instead of fed after symptoms begin to appear (therapeutically).

Conventional antibiotics may also be added to this equation as well for the same purposes. However, significant care should be taken in deciding on feeding rates, combinations, duration, etc.

4. Are the various additive components in the program justified and cost-effective? If the manager is not certain if a specific additive is effective or serving a specific role, it must first be scrutinized and potentially eliminated. This helps keep costs in line and the program streamlined.

5. In the event of some type of break, is there a plan in place to address such an event? It makes a great deal of sense to work with your veterinarian and nutritionist to put a plan into place for such an occurrence.

Similarly, the manager and the employees who work with these calves must be trained to recognize the early onset of potential health problems. Early treatment is always more effective.

There are a large number of very good nutritional and additive tools available to the calf manager. Understanding what is truly needed as well as what the many options are can be invaluable when a sound starting program is being put into place. PD

Dr. Steve Blezinger is a management and nutritional consultant with an office in Sulphur Springs, Texas. He can be reached by email or at (903) 352-3475. Visit his page to follow him on Facebook.

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