Implementing Biologically Appropriate Calf Nutrition Programs

Posted on November 5, 2012 in Starting Strong - Calf Care
What’s become conventional calf feeding isn’t necessarily what’s closest to “natural” calf growth programs. That’s according to Dr. Jim Drackley of the University of Illinois during his presentation at Vita Plus Dairy Summit 2010.

Calf feeding programs that are most successful nutritionally mimic cow’s milk.  Drackley introduced the idea of “biologically appropriate nutrition” to Summit attendees. Biologically appropriate feeding programs deliver milk solids in a ratio nearer to cow’s milk (about 26 percent protein and 29 percent fat on a dry solids basis). The desired outcomes include:
  • Maintenance of health
  • Rapid growth of frame size (skeleton and muscle)
  • Optimal fat deposition
  • Better transition to becoming a functioning ruminant
  • Optimal reproduction and increased milk production in first lactation
Drackley said the root of his research is simple. “If you want calves to grow more rapidly, they have to eat more,” he said. “That means increasing energy intake and protein intake.”
Drackley also reminded the attendees who farm in the Upper Midwest that colder climates demand more energy for basic maintenance requirements before better growth can ever be achieved. But placing calves on a biologically appropriate milk feeding program is only a portion of the total successful calf operation. Several others factors have a big influence on how quickly youngstock enter the milking herd.
Colostrum management
Remember the “three q’s and one c” of colostrum management:  quickly, quantity, quality and cleanliness. Successfully delivering IgGs is essential for ensuring prime calf health. Failure of passive transfer can impair long-term performance, including increased time to first calving, decreased average daily gain to 180 days, and decreased milk and fat yields in the first lactation.
Supplemental water
Although feeding water in the winter comes with challenges, it is paramount to calf health. Inadequate free water leads to:
  • Decreased starter intake
  • Insufficient water for tissue growth
  • Stress response
  • Decreased growth
Starter and weaning management
Drackley reminded producers that proper weaning can minimize the “growth slump” that often occurs at this point in the calf’s life. It is an especially common concern with high performance or biologically appropriate milk programs. However, this challenge is easily solved with a few management adjustments. To avoid nutritional stress at weaning, strive for adequate starter intake by providing plenty of free choice water and avoiding weaning too early in the calf’s life.
In addition, wean gradually and don’t allow free-choice hay intake. Drackley said limit-feeding a small amount of high quality hay can be very good for the calf. Also use a step-down program with accelerated milk replacers to improve starter intake.Drackley provided his checklist of the “ideal” weaning process, but recognized it is extremely difficult – if not impossible – to achieve all these goals. Instead, try to focus on a few of these key items to improve the weaning period on your operation:
  • Wean when calves consume more than 3 pounds of starter daily (start the process when calves reach 2 pounds per day).
  • Wean gradually over 4 to 7 days by decreasing the volume of milk or diluting it with water.
  • Offer warm water at normal feeding times by the same feeding method as milk replacer for three days. This separates calves’ behavioral needs from nutritional needs.
  • Do not move calves or change the diet for two weeks post-weaning.
  • Do not combine weaning with other management tasks such as vaccination, dehorning, etc.
  • Ensure adequate intake of a coccidiostat before and after weaning. Calves may not be getting a high enough dose if they are slumping on starter intake, which may lead to cocci breaks during the weaning period.
In today’s tough dairy economy, Drackley said he sees why producers may be hesitant to invest more money in a biologically appropriate calf nutrition program. However, he said doing so will actually show a significant economic advantage in the long run through improved health and capitalizing on rapid early growth potential. He said he’s seen many examples where the investment per unit of gain is essentially equal between conventional and biologically appropriate programs. Plus – because these programs lead to increased production in the first lactation – the investment is easily paid for and will likely even show a positive return when the heifers enter the milking herd.

Category: Calf and heifer nutrition
Starting Strong - Calf Care