Wise investments in heifer raising
Calves are naturally herd animals, but, on many farms, the transition period is the first time they are grouped with others, bringing about a set of challenges that need specialized attention. Limiting stress on calves can offer some of the greatest paybacks in terms of health and performance.
All calf employees should be well trained in animal handling. Make sure your actions portray what you expect from employees.
Field experience indicates groups of eight to 10 calves works well – at least for the initial post-weaning transition period of three to four weeks. It is always best to give these animals a couple of weeks to adjust before moving again.
Because pen moves and grouping can cause stress for calves, they are often more vulnerable to disease pressure. Abrupt diet changes will also cause stress. Closely monitor newly moved transition calves to catch any early signs of disease.
Innovative feed products combine powerful direct-fed microbials with mannan oligosaccharides and a balance of vitamins and trace minerals. These products can be used during the transition period to promote feed intake and intestinal function.
A bedded pack of straw or sawdust works well compared to freestalls for these young animals. Most calves have never been exposed to concrete or bare ground, so they need to “gain a footing” on new surfaces. In some cases, a small amount of bedding on the scrape alley can offer comfort and familiarity until the calves become comfortable with the new pen.
Regardless of barn style, it must be well-ventilated, provide easy access for handling and moving calves, and allow for easy cleaning and bedding. That’s why retrofitting old barns for calf pens can present challenges. If you are using an old facility, work closely with your calf consultant to design pens that allow for adequate ventilation and bedding in all seasons.
Young calves have a hard time stretching through bars to reach feed on the ground, especially if they are used to eating from raised pails. A raised bunk at the proper neck height with slant bars works well. Drive-by feeding with slant bars can work equally well, but feed push-ups become more critical.
Waterers must be easily accessible, preferably on the fenceline, as calves can find them with less effort. Eliminate any barriers or obstacles that may deter calves from drinking.
Transition calf rations need to be designed with both quality and feed availability in mind. Forage quality is as important to the young calf as it is to a high-producing dairy cow.
The following is a typical ration program that has worked well. This gradual change from starter to TMR helps prevent stress that can occur with abrupt diet changes:
- Feed the same starter grain as calves received in individual pens for seven to 10 days after moving to group pens.
- Switch to a transition TMR, which is a blend of the starter grain and a stage 1 grower TMR, for seven to 10 days.
- Feed a stage 1 grower from 3 to 4 months old (or starting with 200-pound calf). This grower incorporates dry hay, haylage, corn silage and concentrate.
- Feed a stage 2 grower from 4 to 6 months old (or starting with 275-pound calf). This grower contains a higher amount of forage than the stage 1 grower.
The investment pays off
Calves are critical to the success of your future dairy business. They need to be treated with care and respect. Investing this time and attention now can pay dividends when healthy, strong heifers enter your milking herd.
About the authors: Cody Yanzick is a Vita Plus dairy specialist. He grew up on a cattle ranch near Billings, Mont. and attended Montana State University in Bozeman to earn a bachelor’s degree in animal science and nutrition. Yanzick works with progressive dairy producers in eastern Wisconsin, focusing on total dairy herd health, including calves and heifers. In addition, Yanzick and his wife, Sherry, own and operate a special fed veal operation. Yanzick has passed down his interest in science to his three daughters. He enjoys spending time with his family, riding ATVs, hunting and fly fishing.
Ann Hoskins is the Vita Plus calf products manager. She grew up on a dairy farm in DeForest, Wisconsin, which she says is instrumental to where she is today. “The lessons and values I gained growing up in this industry have given me the passion to stay involved and continue to learn more every day.” Hoskins earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and has spent that last several years at Vita Plus, working with producers to improve performance and help them reach the goals of their calf operations.
Calf and heifer nutrition
Feed quality and nutrition