MOUNT JOY, Pa. — A dairy’s future is only as good as its next generation. But did you know early calf growth and rumen development are the big keys in heifers reaching their genetic potential as income producers?
While dairy producers often think about heifer raising in terms of the cost — representing one-quarter of the total operating costs on the average Pennsylvania dairy — “it also derives an income for you,” said Andrew Holloway, DVM, during a calf workshop recently. He explained that while the cost per day of raising a heifer is quite high in the pre-weaning phase, this is also the time for the most efficient growth — representing the biggest opportunity to reduce the total cost.
By reducing the number of days heifers are fed before first calving, producers are able to reduce the amount of feed needed, the number of replacement heifers needed, and the capital investment in facilities needed to “drive the lactating cow engine,” said Holloway.
To showcase the importance of building the foundation that sets calves up for success as income-producing adults, Agri-Basics, Inc. (ABI) sponsored four regional calf workshops this spring attended by 150 producers and industry professionals in Howard, Newburg, Gap, and Mount Joy, Pennsylvania.
As part of the roll-out for ABI’s Double-56 textured calf starter — designed to meet the goals of doubling a calf’s birthweight in the first 56 days to be eating a forage-based diet by 100 days and bred at 12 months to calve into the milking string at 21 months — the educational workshops consisted of classroom learning and a hands-on necropsy where attendees could see firsthand the actual differences in rumen development of calves fed differently.
Dr. Holloway of Elanco Animal Health and Dr. Kate Anderson of Milk Specialties Global, explained the science behind what helps a calf grow into a life of productivity.
The research shows an association between average daily gain (ADG) in the first 56 days of life and the animal’s lactation milk yield. “This really matters on your dairy. It’s critical work for your future productivity, income and costs,” Holloway stressed. “On the income side, we are learning with increasing evidence that calves really never get over a bad start, and it’s hard to mess them up if they have a really good start.”
Anderson stressed the protocols for good colostrum management to boost the calf’s immune system while reducing disease challenges with plenty of clean, dry bedding. “Tip the scales in your favor,” she said, urging producers to shift the focus away from ‘bugs’ and treatments to look more closely at how things work together for or against the calf.
Colostrum is, for a calf, “a superfood,” she said. “It’s got double the amount of solids as milk, 8-10 times more vitamins than milk, 50% more mineral content and 200 bioactive compounds.” This superfood, then, sets the calf up for proper intestinal development and nutrient absorption and allows the calf to fight off bacteria more effectively.”
Holloway noted that five years of research “compared calves that received a gallon of high quality colostrum versus two quarts on day-one. The researchers were able to identify differences in milk production in the first lactation in those calves — so what you do on day-one impacts what happens after the first calving,” he said.
Rumen development in the pre-weaned calf is a critical part of the early growth process and the foundation for the milking adult.
A calf’s gut is relatively sterile at birth, “so the calf starts inoculating itself early by consuming bedding, calf starter grain — basically everything — by the second week of life,” said Holloway
In this phase, as the calf grows, its primary functioning compartment is the abomasum, which can digest milk. Moving into the transitional phase is when the rumen begins to develop, and the driver of rumen development is the consumption of a coarse, textured calf starter; not hay or pellets.
“The inside of the rumen, when a calf is born, looks like a flat, clean slate; however, in time we turn it into a shag carpet (because of hair-like papillae development). The rumen becomes an enormous surface area, and every square inch of it can absorb nutrients,” said Holloway, explaining that, “a calf needs acetate, butyrate and propionate to grow rumen papillae. This comes from the calf starter. If we want efficient rumen development, we need simple carbohydrates in the form of cereal grains.”
He emphasized there being no good reason to feed hay during the pre-weaning phase. In fact, he said, hay limits rumen development in young calves, which really don’t need hay before 10-12 weeks of age.
“We need to feed milk, but we also need to make a functional rumen, and the calf starter drives that,” Holloway stated.
“Calf starter intake is influenced by milk consumption,” he said, noting that if calves are fed a lot of milk, they’ll eat less starter. “A balanced approach makes sure they grow exceptionally well but get enough starter to drive rumen development. We can double birthweight and get good rumen development by having a moderate program.”
Water is a critical component. “Starter intakes are higher when you provide free choice water,” said Holloway. “You don’t see them drinking a lot of water, but both the starter and the water should be in front of them on the second day of life. The earlier they attempt it, the earlier they eat it. If you had a camera in front of them, you’d be amazed how much they go for both.”
Both Holloway and Anderson encouraged producers to view the pre-weaned nutrition as setting the calf up for starter intake and rumen development.
“Your main source of nutrition for baby calves is liquid feed (whole milk or milk replacer). This sets them up for good starter intake,” said Anderson, explaining how the calf’s esophageal groove closes as it drinks the milk or milk replacer, sending it directly into the abomasum. Providing water 15 to 30 minutes after a milk feeding opens that groove for the water to go where it’s supposed to — the rumen. The water is needed to start the fermenting process in the rumen, and it aids the rumen development by prodding calf starter consumption.
Holloway noted that calves fed coarser, textured starter diets start ruminating three weeks earlier. “Fines matter. Calves don’t eat as much starter if there’s a lot of fines (fine particles) in it, and there are some challenges with creating the proper environment in the rumen if there are a lot of fines,” he said.
Coarse, texturized calf starter creates more chewing. “As they chew it, they incorporate saliva, which significantly influences the pH of the developing rumen. So, the more she chews it, breaking down particles with physical action, the more she also influences the pH of her rumen,” he explained. “A coarse starter tends to lend itself to a rumen with a (buffered) pH and consequently more papillae growth.”
In addition to managing pre-weaned calves for optimal growth and rumen development, Dr. Anderson noted the importance of keeping those tedious records to make informed decisions. “Focus on what is most important to you and then measure it,” she said, suggesting they keep track of calf weight, height, body condition score (BCS) at strategic growth intervals, calf health scores, treatments, mortalities and causes, and starter intake.
Pre-birth decisions — such as sire selection, age and weight, vaccination of dam, dam nutrition, and dry period length — all either help or hinder a calf in her birth and growing process. After the calf is born, Anderson stressed a clean and dry maternity pen and urged producers to avoid intervening too quickly, to help with the birth process as appropriate, without being overly aggressive.
Bringing the steps of calf raising back to the goals of the dairy, ABI calf specialist Angela Breneman noted that, in addition to the important goal of doubling birthweight in 56 days, Double-56 aligns with the goals of Franklin View Farms, the Breneman family’s 650-cow dairy in Washington Boro, because it provides the textured cereal grains the calf needs to accomplish her transition from milk to being weaned and moving forward to a ration based on home-grown forages.
“There has to be a balance of milk and high quality textured feed, with no fines,” she said, explaining that fines pass through the calf too fast and cause digestive issues.
Workshop attendees saw the difference in calves that are given textured feeds versus calves given feeds with fines in it. ABI had sponsored a study where eight Jersey calves were fed three quarts of milk twice a day, and two different types of calf starter until they were 50-53 days old. At that time, they were part of a calf necropsy, where they were opened up at the end of each of the four regional workshops.
Some of the calves were fed Double-56 and others were given an 18% pure pelleted feed. The calves on the pure pelleted feed had an ADG of 1.17 pounds/day while the calves on
The textured feed (Double-56) checked in with an ADG of 1.46 pounds.
“We wanted to show their digestive anatomy and see what effects the fines in the comparison diet actually had on the calves,” said Breneman. “We also did rumen taps, and the two on textured grain had higher rumen pHs than the two on pellets.”
In a healthy adult cow, the rumen pH will be 5.3 to 5.5. Anything below that is considered acidosis, above that, too alkaline.
The bottom line for reducing the overall cost of raising dairy replacements is to double the birthweight in the first 56-day window of life when growth is most efficient and to develop the rumen to get them on home grown forages by 100 to 120 days, bred at 12 months and calving at 21 months.
“Typically, when we’ve tried to do that in the past, we’ve pushed calves too hard and they’ve crashed,” said Breneman. “Now, we have the ability to accomplish this with a step-down program using a ration of grain instead of fermented feed to slowly wean the calves off the grain and onto the forage, preparing them for the next step in their lives, which is to become a functioning, lactating cow.”
By: Sherry Bunting