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Calf Health Is Job One For Dairy Producers

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“It’s imperative that we have this stuff very rapidly cooled. We need to treat it just like we treat milk that we’re going to sell.”

Bob James says that while milk production is key to a successful dairy herd, producers might think more about measuring their success in raising healthy dairy calves.

James, extension scientist at Virginia Tech University, spoke at the Western Canadian Dairy Seminar held in here at the beginning of March.

Dairy calves have an extremely high rate of mortality, much higher than beef calves. About 30 to 40 per cent of dairy calves don’t even receive colostrum and many producers fail to meet growth potential on pre-weaned calves, said James. Until a calf receives colostrum, it has little protection against bacteria in the environment. Colostrum helps establish cellular immunity and assists with the development of the enzyme system and intestinal tissue.

James said colostrum contamination is quite common so producers need to watch for it. Contamination can occur as a result of infected glands or dirt on the mother, fecal contamination or unsanitary collection which can occur during feeding or storing of the colostrum.

Pasteurizing colostrum at 60C for 60 minutes eliminates potential bacteria including E. coli, listeria and salmonella. James said producers should avoid pooling colostrum in order to reduce dangerous microbial exposure. Identifying infected cows, or cows with infected glands can also reduce the possibility of contamination.

Immediate refrigeration of colostrum can also reduce the risk of potential contamination and negative bacteria growth. “It’s imperative that we have this stuff very rapidly cooled. We need to treat it just like we treat milk that we’re going to sell,” said James.

James said there are many effective colostrum replacers on the market, but producers should check that the products they use have been tested. James urged producers to test their colostrum with a colostrumeter at about 22C, and adjust the readings for temperature. Calves need to receive about four litres of colostrum in the first 12 hours of life to receive all the benefits.

Bottle feeding or tube feeding are both acceptable methods of getting colostrum into the calf. Tube feeding has potential benefits because it forces the calf to drink, but calves may be reluctant to have a tube applied. Bottle feeding is more comfortable, but producers should take care not to create large holes in the nipple, as this could result in additional air consumption, which is uncomfortable for the calf.

James said many milk replacers used in the dairy industry contain less fat and are nutritionally inferior to whole milk. Producers can run into trouble when growing calves are receiving less nutrition than they need. Many calves end up using the energy in milk replacers for simple maintenance, and are not receiving adequate nutrition. A 25-kilo calf living in a temperature of about 10C needs about three litres of milk a day just to maintain its body weight.

Most calves are born with low reserves of body fat, which is quickly depleted by inefficient diets. Having a reserve of body fat on calves can increase their immunity and decrease potential risks for the producer in the first couple of weeks.

Poor nutrition can also impede the development of rumen and mammary development in growing calves. Studies have shown that good nutrition during the early years of a cow’s life could increase future milk production, said James. Establishing goals for calf growth can help a producer to focus on nutrition, said James. Calves should double their birth weights by 56 days.

About the author

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Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."

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