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Don’t skip the nutrition

Progressive Dairyman Editor Jenna Hurty Published on 24 August 2015

For Kevin Souza, the importance of proper calf nutrition has been his biggest lesson in calf care in the past 18 years he’s spent as the managing partner at Victory Farms in Millbank, South Dakota.

Due to the extreme weather conditions of South Dakota, protocols have to change somewhat based on time of year. In the summer, calves are put into their hutch within 24 hours of birth but, in the winter, they stay under a heat lamp until day two, when they are given a calf jacket and taken to an outdoor hutch.

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Calf bedding also varies based on the time of year. From Labor Day until Memorial Day, calves have straw bedding. The rest of the year, they have sand bedding to keep them cool. But Souza says their biggest factor to growing strong, healthy heifers is their nutrition program.

In the past, they started breeding their heifers at 13 months old. The heifers only weighed 500 pounds, and by the time they were eight months pregnant, they were still only 850 pounds. The heifers couldn’t handle the system, and Souza was concerned.

Click here to view the calf raising protocol at Victory Farms. (PDF, 80KB)

At the time, they were feeding a 22/22 milk replacer twice a day to their pre-weaned calves. Then, a few years ago, Souza decided to step up the farm’s feeding program to three times a day and see what happened.

The calves responded. Today, the heifers are not only handling the system, they’re excelling. Souza has pushed up his breeding timetable so heifers are bred at 11.5 months. At this point, they weigh about 550 to 570 pounds, and at eight months pregnant, they’re reaching 950 to 960 pounds.

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In addition, the heifers’ first-lactation ME have, on average, jumped up 3,800 pounds over the years. While Souza says he doesn’t think this is entirely from increasing the calves’ milk allotment, he does think it played a part in it.

More importantly, with the increased feeding rate, the calves are handling disease and cold stress better. In fact, that was Souza’s reason for switching in the first place.

“They don’t have a lot of reserves, and if you skip on the nutrition part of it, it seems like if you have any little hiccup, they don’t give you time to treat; they just end up dying,” Souza says. “That’s probably one of the biggest things. That’s why we went to the 3X feeding. We couldn’t get the amount of milk in them we wanted to on the 2X feeding. They just couldn’t handle it all.”

Although Souza says they spent most of 2014 under 1 percent mortality rate, an early winter changed that. The dry cows weren’t conditioned for it; they were short on colostrum, and the calves were small. Once they brought the energy back up, they were fine, but those few months brought their mortality rate up to a 3.7 percent average for the year. PD

Jenna Hurty
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