The Formula for Improved Calf Performance

By Jennifer Ryan
June, 2016

Delaying weaning age and choosing the right milk replacer can keep calves growing and healthy


Weaning calves later and feeding high-quality milk during the early months can set the stage for improved growth and returns for a lifetime. Higher weaning weights, improved gain and greater milk production can also result from changing strategy during the crucial early months.

“Calf mortality is 7 to 8 percent compared to beef calves where it’s 2.3 percent,” says Thomas Earleywine, Ph.D., director of nutritional services for Land O’Lakes Animal Milk Products. “One of the major differences is that beef calves are usually allowed to drink as much milk as they want and weaned at a much older age.”

Investing in calves early on can cost more, but the cost per pound of gain is often less. Therefore, Earleywine says that the long-term gain will more than make up for the additional cost.

“You get what you pay for in terms of growth, better grown, fuller, longer, taller calves,” he says. “Some folks are worried that it will require more intensive management. It’s just good management. The things we need to do regardless of the plane of nutrition fed.”

 

Weaning age

The typical weaning age for dairy calves is about 2 months old. This can work against the natural development of the rumen and is often why producers see weaning transition issues, he says.

“The age is slowly increasing across the industry,” Earleywine says. “It’s gone from seven to eight weeks to nine weeks. It shows producers are recognizing that it’s best for the calf and allows the rumen to be more prepared.”

A smooth weaning transition is critical for calf health and development, he says. An older weaning age often returns sustainably better growth rates. In addition, often fewer calves are treated for health issues.

“If you wean at a proper age, you can actually have a smoother weaning transition, have bigger calves, their rumen is bigger and they are able to eat more starter,” Earleywine says.

 

Choosing milk replacer

About 15 years ago, the industry introduced “Cow’s Match,” or full-potential, milk replacer products that are higher in protein and a similar dry matter as whole milk. Often, these products are recommended to be fed at higher rates, which actually requires more protein.

“When you feed at higher rates, calves grow faster,” Earleywine notes. “Then, they need more protein. There is even data that calves that are fed better will produce more as cows – up to 1,000 to 3,000 pounds more milk in trials across the world.”

Today, full potential milk replacer products are nearly half of the milk replacer sold. When producers transition to these products, there are changes in calf response expected.

“When calves are being fed on a higher plane of nutrition and constantly growing, producers can expect to see more loose manure. However, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are scouring. Just like newborn babies, you don’t expect to see solid manure if they are on a liquid diet. If they look good and drink well, there’s no reason to be worried about manure consistency.”

One way some producers have moved to full potential products is by utilizing pasteurized waste milk. In those cases, Earleywine recommends considering a milk balancer to provide additional nutrients and technologies. If enough waste milk isn’t available, using both replacer and waste milk can work well.

“A combination of pasteurized waste milk and milk replacer can be a great way to raise a calf,” he says. “It works really well from an economic perspective in that you don’t have to take saleable milk to raise the calves.”

 

Selecting replacement

Using the right milk replacer is more economical than diverting saleable milk to calves, says Scott Mulrooney, territory manager with Merrick’s Inc. However, using waste milk can come with its own drawbacks.

“Using waste milk higher in somatic cell counts can actually introduce bacteria into the calf herd,” he says. “Milk replacer is pasteurized and consistent. It doesn’t bring pathogens so scours and respiratory illness are less of a concern. If the farmer is going to feed whole, unpasteurized milk, it can transfer Mycoplasma, leucosis and Johne’s disease just to name a few.”

Milk replacer also provides consistent nutrients and dry matter levels. On the other hand, waste milk may be more prone to variances, Mulrooney says.

“Sometimes there’s 10, 9 or even 8 percent solids, which is far lower than the 12 percent that whole milk should be,” he says. “Maybe there’s water from washing down equipment, or bacteria can eat dry matter out of the product. For calves, that’s a big deal if you have inconsistencies in nutrition. It can result in inconsistencies in health or average daily gain.”

Milk replacers can also provide additional vitamins, minerals and additives to control disease like coccidiosis, which can positively contribute to the animal’s health status, Mulrooney notes.

 

Check for quality

Mulrooney recommends producers check product labels for the quality of ingredients. He looks for all-natural, all-milk proteins. Using human-grade ingredients can indicate a higher overall quality. In addition, wheat isolates or soy proteins can hamper the product’s effectiveness depending on the percentage used in the formulation.

“Wheat and soy proteins aren’t as digestible,” he says. “I would also look for a lower ash content.”

Ash is the non-digestible part in any ingredient. This information isn’t typically listed on the product label, but the manufacturer should be able to provide the percentage upon request.

“I would look for a 9 percent ash content or lower,” Mulrooney says. “Or ask if the company has an ash guarantee on the product. A customer might never know the indigestible material is in there by just comparing tags. Ash content typically shows that a human-grade, quality ingredient is being used versus a feed-grade ingredient.”

In addition, he recommends looking at the manufacturer’s technical support available.

“Raising calves is much more intricate than people give it credit for,” Mulrooney says. “Raising calves is not easy. Especially if a producer has used a professional calf raiser and is now getting into raising his own. You want tech support to be there to help.”   

Specifically, discussing the feeding rate can be an excellent question for technical services. Often, the feeding rate on the
label can be increased to help achieve higher rates of daily gain. Discussing an operation’s goals with a technical representative can help design a feeding strategy that includes a customized rate, frequency, water availability and forage offerings. A technical services representative can also check to ensure the solids level is balanced after mixing.

Finally, Mulrooney says that calf health starts all the way back at the dry cow. When she is vaccinated and healthy, the chances of success for her calves is greater.

“A vet is going to help develop the correct vaccine program that goes along with that calf,” he says. “Making sure dry cow is properly vaccinated and the calf gets the right amount of colostrum – that’s a big part of calf health.”

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