When it comes to the care and feeding of dairy calves, finding a system that mimics Mother Nature is the best, veterinarians say.
On many Wisconsin farms these days, that “natural” system turns out to be one that involves computerized systems that are on duty 24-7 feeding calves many more times in a given day than human caretakers would be available to do — and much like a cow would.
One such farm is Greg and Cheryl Ziegler’s dairy just north of Middleton where well over 100 individual calf stalls in their barn have given way to large group pens of Holstein calves handled by several computer-driven units that dole out milk continuously as the calves ask for it.
Calves are kept in individual pens on one side of the barn just long enough to teach them how to drink from a bottle and get them steady on their feet. Then they go into a small pen served by one of the calf-feeding units.
The baby calves are fitted with radio frequency identification tags (RFID) that are programmed into the system, so the computer will be able to know what calf comes into the feeding stall and determine if that calf is eligible for another meal.
“They stay alone for three or four days until they’re really aggressive and then we put them in the first pen with about 20 calves,” said Matt Ziegler, who manages the calf barn.
A check of a handheld device or a laptop computer each day tells him of any calves that did not try to eat and therefore may be sick.
In the first pen calves get six liters of milk a day and later graduate to 11 liters per day until they are weaned at 50 days of age. Most of the calves come to drink as often as four or five times a day.
The Zieglers utilize pasteurized milk that is being discarded in their nearby rotary parlor and the calf-feeding units are also able to add a powdered supplement when there isn’t enough whole milk.
The units wash themselves three times a day. Clean water and starter feed is available continuously to the calves and the area around those feeding zones can be washed down with a hose.
Ziegler said each of the feeding units can handle as many as 30 calves.
Dr. Richard Wallace, DVM, who spoke at a calf seminar hosted by the Zieglers last week, said operations that put in this type of feeding unit find they don’t have calves sucking on each other because they know that at any time they can go and get a meal from the feeding stall.
WELL-FED CALVES HEALTHY
Even in the group housing where calves can come into close contact with each other, research has found that they don’t get many infections because they are on a high plane of nutrition — their immune systems can fend off illness because the calves are so well fed.
He related a case from his earlier days as a practicing vet in northeast Wisconsin. He talked one producer into feeding two extra times per day — for a total of four times a day — and the cattle responded with huge gains and even wins at the county fair.
Wallace noted that good calf management starts in the maternity management of their mothers. Cows must be properly vaccinated so their colostrum will be of high enough quality to immunize their calves.
Maternity cows should be isolated at calving time and should be in a well-ventilated, roomy pen with clean, dry, fresh bedding.
When the calf is born the quality and timing of the colostrum are both important.
Herd veterinarians can check blood samples on calves to make sure the calves are getting enough immunoglobulins from the first milk of the cows. The higher those proteins, the better the transfer of immune proteins is from the cow’s colostrum.
How calves are cared for is proving to be important for the eventual milk production of these heifer calves. “Epigenetic factors are showing that better production as adults can be programmed when they are calves — it turns on the genes for these traits that only show up in the future,” he said.
Some of the factors affecting colostrum quality are dry cow nutrition, vaccination of cows during the dry period, excessively long or very short dry periods and any delay between calving and that first milking.
“The longer we wait, the more dilute the colostrum will be. Some farms are set up to milk that cow right in the fresh pen so there’s no delay.”
A 2005 study he cited showed that for two hours post-calving there was still 100 percent of the immunoglobulin protein in the colostrum but by six hours it had dropped to 83 percent. After 10 hours it was down to 73 percent and by 14 hours it was down to 67 percent.
GET IT TO CALVES
Once good quality colostrum is available it’s important to get enough of it into calves quickly, too.
Wallace cited a study done with Brown Swiss calves that compared those fed 2 liters of colostrum to those fed 4 liters of colostrum. The veterinary cost was significantly lower on the calves fed more and that group also had a significantly higher average daily gain.
“The severity of scours in calves is going to be higher if you wait longer to feed them their colostrum.”
In one study calves were given a dose of E. coli bacteria after feeding colostrum at different intervals for various groups. Those that didn’t get the colostrum until five hours after birth had a much higher death rate.
“Bad management can override good immunology any day of the week.”
Wallace said calf managers can think of it like a pyramid with good nutrition, environment and sanitation forming the base with vaccination and medication at the top of the pyramid.
“If we start with ‘what’s the best drug to give my calf for pneumonia?’ then I think we are asking the wrong questions.”
Twenty-five to 30 percent of a calf’s daily energy is devoted to the immune system, so it stands to reason that a better plane of nutrition will yield healthier calves.
Calves are also sensitive to their environment. For every degree above 75 and below 50 their maintenance requirement goes up by a percentage point, he said. “If the temperature is 25 degrees that means they need 25 percent more nutrition. If it’s zero degrees, they need 50 percent more.”
Farms that don’t have computerized feeding systems like the Zieglers may want to think about mimicking that system by feeding their calves another once or twice each day.
Traditionally calf feeding is done twice a day, but adding an extra feeding or two in the 24-hour period can improve growth rates, bring heifers into earlier puberty and bring them into the milking string earlier in their life.
HIGHER MILK PRODUCTION
Wallace showed results of a number of studies all showing the extra production from calves that were pushed into this way. These heifers had first lactations that improved by anywhere from 1,000 pounds of milk to 3,000 pounds.
Dr. Scott Pertzborn of Lodi Veterinary Care, which sponsored the calf care seminar in Middleton, said that animal welfare is becoming a concern. Farmers are and will continue to adopt measures that consider the welfare of their animals.
“What better welfare is there than to keep animals from getting sick in the first place?” he added.
He suggested that farmers consider evaluating the quality of their colostrum and also take blood samples of calves to determine if those calves are getting enough of the immune proteins into their bloodstream.
Farmers may also want to get bacterial cultures done of their colostrum because a dirty pail or some other contamination may end up giving a calf something it shouldn’t be getting.
Getting calves off to a good start involves many moving parts and things like good sanitation and ventilation also play their role. Pertzborn said another tool that can be helpful is monitoring the height and weight of calves.
“Doubling their birth weight by 60 days is a goal.”