Taking the inside-out approach to growing calves – Dr. Noah Litherland, Vita Plus
Raising calves to be productive members of your future herd doesn’t happen overnight. According to Dr. Noah Litherland, Vita Plus dairy youngstock specialist, we need to “grow calves from the inside out” by developing the gastrointestinal (GI) tract and digestive processes to protect all internal tissues and ensure efficient growth.
Litherland told Vita Plus Calf Summit attendees that feeding calves to develop the GI tract helps give them a strong start through the first 10 days of life, and helps them finish strong through weaning and transition.
Why is this important? Litherland used scours as an example of poor GI tract development.
Calves typically scour around day 10. While a variety of events are happening in the calves’ lives that could cause scours, Litherland said it is predominantly caused by inflammation of the small intestine, which can be caused by overfeeding milk.
When fed the correct amount of milk, digesta is slowly released into the gut where it is digested properly, water is reabsorbed and they experience little gut inflammation. When milk is overfed, gut passage rates increase, digestion decreases, water flow is reversed, gut inflammation occurs and, ultimately, scours occurs.
While many producers believe more milk is better, Litherland explained we are overwhelming the calves’ capacities to process the milk. He said a more accurate way to feed calves is as a percentage of body weight.
“A 75-pound calf is different from a 95-pound calf,” Litherland said. “We need feeding programs for different animal weights.”
If you are feeding large amounts of milk (6 to 8 quarts), this may be OK for larger calves, but smaller calves get overwhelmed by these amounts. Additionally, he showed data that reported 70 percent of calves are overfed milk.
Additionally, Litherland pointed out feeding too much milk also increases the amount of lactose. Lactose is a natural laxative and speeds up passage rates, which irritates the gut. He recommends no more than 300 grams of lactose per day, or about 0.75 percent of body weight for lactose intake.
Some farms may be feeding 10 quarts successfully, but Litherland cautioned and said they probably have larger calves and are also doing other management-related tasks. Litherland’s recommended plane of nutrition is to start slow and then increase milk. He said feed around 4 to 5 quarts of milk for the first 10 days to let the gut develop, then increase it to 6 quarts.
“Pull back initially, let the calves get their feet beneath them, and then adjust,” Litherland recommended.
Lastly, Litherland spoke about starter grain and how it is important for GI tract maturation. He recommended providing starter grain early on. Although starter grain intake in the first three weeks may only total 5 pounds total intake, this intake has a profound impact on GI tract development. He said if you can get calves to consume 500 grams of starter a day before 21 days, then you will see an improved microbial profile which will translate to better gut health.
He also said starter grain should have a modest starch-to-fiber ratio, about 1.5-to-1. He said a little fiber can slow down passage rates and increase digestion of nutrients, which translates to growth.
Litherland closed with his considerations for calf performance goals. These include:
- A high rate of growth – more than 1.8 pounds per day
- Consistent growth
- Birth weight tripled by day 90
- A low cost of gain – less than $1.25 per pound
- Heifers weighing 80 percent of their mature body weight and milking at least 80 percent of what mature cows are milking
Calf and heifer nutrition
Starting Strong - Calf Care