Mark Hardesty

The author is a partner in Maria Stein Animal Clinic, Maria Stein, Ohio.

Dave and I were working through a calf raising evaluation form developed by one of our drug companies. The form compared Dave's records to benchmarks at different performance levels. For example, if 80 percent of the calves have serum total proteins over 5.5, you were in the 80th percentile of calf raisers across the country.

We had most of the evaluation completed from Dave's records in an hour. He ranked in the top 80 percent overall but wasn't satisfied. Dave said, "I just went to a financial meeting where only the top 20 percent of dairy producers actually make a profit after they pay a return on their investment and a return to management and labor. We have to be excellent to thrive. Average is the best of the worst. Management is about going beyond trading time for money. It is about creating a better return by giving our employees and our animals the best tools to excel."

Room to grow
He went on, "Yes it's good to know where I rank, but really improvement needs to be compared to ourselves over time." The evaluation had an area for suggested improvements, but Dave said, "Wait, these are calves, we get a chance with each one to do everything right. We don't have to compare to what we've always done."

I agreed that calves give us that unique opportunity to start over every time. On some farms, many times a day. This differs from milk quality where a group of cows with mastitis needs to be cured faster than those with new infections. Nutrition is so very dependent upon our forage quality that we live with it for an entire year. Reproduction takes time to improve because it starts with calving cows healthy and has many variables. Cow comfort may have significant financial investments to make improvements.

Do you meet the challenge that calves give us to do things right with each one? Dave said, "Let's forget what you know about our operation. It's a new year. Let's spend some time discussing an ideal calf raising routine for the first two months."

We discussed how the first 24 hours of a calf's life are critical for its long-term productivity, but really success starts before that. Dry cow or heifer nutrition, housing - including bunk space - and vaccination programs all contribute to health of newborns.

The process of calving has major impact on calf health, and 1 in 12 calves is stillborn or dead within 24 hours of birth. This can be improved with focus and education on calving management. Let's not leave being born into a clean, dry environment be up to chance.

There are many calving pen strategies depending on the availability of labor to provide surveillance. Dave had attended our calving school last year, so we left that whole discussion for review at another time. Once our calf is born in that clean, dry environment, we need to keep it from being exposed to the bacteria and viruses shed by adult cows, especially in their manure. The path for these pathogens is through the umbilicus and the GI tract.

We disinfect the umbilicus and bottoms of the feet with 7 percent iodine and move calves within minutes of birth to a clean area. Manure on their hair transmits pathogens to their next pen, making it contaminated no matter how clean it was when you put them there.

If calves are removed from their dam, we need to stimulate their breathing and circulation and get them warm and dry. Some of our clean areas allow cows to reach in and lick off the calf while making manure contamination difficult.

One example is a round bale feeder that the calves go into and the cows reach through. Don't leave calves in this type of clean zone for too long as they have an amazing ability to find their way out.

Give them a gallon
The next step in health is feeding a gallon of clean colostrum to Holstein calves within two hours of birth. Smaller calves get proportionally less, but we offer all calves their regular diet at the next scheduled feeding.

The cleanest dairies can feed a second feeding of colostrum. Those that are less clean should feed milk replacer or pasteurized whole milk at the second feeding. The only way that you can know if you have clean colostrum harvesters is to check the standard plate count and coliform count of colostrum samples regularly. Our first day also includes a vitamin E and selenium or multimineral injection and an intranasal respiratory vaccine.

Housing, nutrition and cleanliness are the main focus of the first two months of life. When it comes to housing, it is pretty hard to beat a well-bedded, ventilated calf hutch that is protected from severe weather and well drained. Straw is the favored bedding as calves can nestle down into it to stay warm. We also put calf blankets on all calves less than 3 weeks of age when it is less than 40 degrees. Our weather is severe enough that the trend is toward calf barns that try to approximate the calf hutch environment.

This means our Holstein calves have 25 to 30 square feet of bedding in an individual pen which is the standard. Fresh air is needed to stay healthy, and many buildings have power ventilation to bring fresh air to every calf. We can debate if we want solid sides to have less scours or open sides to have less pneumonia, but the key to both is to get the bedding dry.

Many strategies have been tried to drain the moisture from bedding, but we conclude that the best way to do that is to clean the pens out every three weeks. Some dairies have now learned how to successfully raise calves in groups where the same principles apply. The main requirement of health and growth is sufficient nutrition.

The feeding programs, sometimes called "accelerated" but more accurately "sufficient," for normal growth are needed for all calves. Clean water must be offered either free choice or two or three times daily, and a handful of grain should be available by a few days of age. Calves should be eating 2-1/2 pounds of grain and have been eating a significant amount of grain for three weeks before they are weaned. Hay is not fed to rapidly growing calves until after weaning.

The most successful calf raisers are meticulous about cleaning and understand that every surface that touches milk needs to be cleaned the same way that our milking systems are. This includes a warm water rinse, a hot soapy water wash, disinfectant rinse, then drying. Failure to wash completely results in a buildup that cannot be cleaned and is a great place for bacteria to grow.

Feeding a hefty dose of bacteria to babies is a very efficient way to make them sick. Dave remarked that his dairy was getting most of this done, but there were some details that could improve. I noted that I had really just mentioned the basics, and true craftsmen or women at raising calves had more on their "to-do" list than this short column could cover.

Dave summarized the subject with, "When we know a path to excellence, we can follow it, but we have to stop defending what we have done and gotten away with before." You can certainly benefit from having this discussion with your veterinarian.

This article appears on page 72 of the January 25, 2013 issue of Hoard's Dairyman.