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Dairy Days: Leaving no calves behind

By Staff | Mar 12, 2014

“Calves can starve to death in cold weather if they’re not getting enough milk. I’ve seen it happen.” —Dr. Lee Killmer ISU dairy specialist

ORANGE CITY- It was the big surprise of the day, Northwest Iowa-area dairy farmers learned just how important it is to get colostrum into newborn calves within the first hour of life-two hours at the latest.

This was one of the findings reported at the Feb. 26 “Leave No Dairy Calf Behind” portion of the 2014 Dairy Days Program in Orange City.

The Dairy Calf and Heifer Association has established several Gold Performance Standards to serve as benchmarks for dairy operations that are raising replacement dairy calves.

The standards focus on mortality, morbidity, colostrum management, nutrition, growth rate and housing.

They each have their place in the study, which also focuses on rearing calves as economically as possible, calves that can be bred earlier – thus having the potential for those calves to remain in the herd longer, producing more milk.

This session focused primarily on the nutrition aspect.

Dr. Lee Killmer, an Iowa State University Extension diary specialist, told the audience to follow the four “Qs” to colostrum management. They are:

A). Quality: Assuring colostrum is high quality, containing at least 50 grams per liter of IgG, the immunoglobulun protein.

B). Quantity: The initial feeding should be 10 to 15 percent of the calf’s birth weight.

Killmer said a 90- or 100-pound calf should receive four quarts of colostrum at its first feeding.

“They can consume that much,” he said, “even if you have to stomach-tube it. He said adding that the amount of colostrum on the first feeding is birth-weight dependent.

“If you have a 75-pound calf, I want you to feed it three quarts,” Killmer said, “and if you have a 50-pound calf, they need at least two quarts of colostrum in that first feeding.”

If the calf doesn’t want to eat 12 hours later it doesn’t matter, he said, as long as they get that high dosage of colostrum in its first feeding after birth.

C). Quickly: Killmer said most producers get colostrum into their calves within the first two to four hours of life, but that it should be closer to the first hour or two.

D). Squeaky clean: Calving facilities should follow the same standard of cleanliness as in the bulk tank area of the dairy.

“We need to use the same level of sanitation relative to our colostrum management,” Killmer said, “clean udders, clean teats, clean equipment, dry equipment, sanitized equipment, sanitized bottles for bottle feeding those calves after that first dose of colostrum, and if we’re tubing them, same answer.

“High levels of bacteria are going to have a negative effect on the absorption of IgGs.”

Healthy kickstart

Killmer said getting colostrum into calves dramatically increases a calf’s chance of getting off to a healthy start, but solely enables the calf to produce significantly more milk later on.

An ISU study showed an increase of 2,000 additional pounds of milk in two lactations.

Killmer said all research indicates colostrum within the first hour or two of birth leads to faster growth and higher production all around.

He added that fresh colostrum is recommended, but if colostrum must be refrigerated or frozen, do so immediately so as not to allow bacteria to grow.

Bacteria in colostrum, he said, interfers with absorption of IgGs. The amount of bacteria doubles every 30 minutes at room temperature and will also grow almost as rapidly in the refrigerator until it is completely cooled down.

“You can freeze colostrum,” Killmer said, “and you can thaw it in a microwave if you do it correctly.

“If you have a defrost setting or a low setting, use it. Thaw a little at a time, then pour the liquid off as you go,” he said. “If you keep defrosting it (without pouring off the melted liquid) until the core is thawed, you’ll have junk because you’ll denature some of those proteins.”

Killmer said 18 pounds “seems to be the trigger point” on the amount of colostrum collected.

“Now we’re milking the cow completely,” Killmer said, “if she gives over 18 pounds of milk in that first milking, chances are the quality of that colostrum isn’t going to be as good as if the cow was milked out and gave less than 18 pounds.

“It’s the dilution effect.”


In addition, he said, practicing a high standards of cleanliness and sanitation is essential when collecting colostrum from a fresh cow.

Killmer said ISU studies have shown calves receiving four liters of colostrum at their first feeding have a higher rate of bodyweight gain, resulting in more milk production in the first two lactations.

He said another study showed calves fed a higher initial level of colostrum had a greater average daily gain during post-weaning and a greater feed efficiency than calves fed less colostrum.

Killmer said calves should have an average daily gain of at least 1.6 pounds.

When being fed whole milk, six quarts daily is enough during hot summer months, he said, but when temperatures dip below freezing, at least eight quarts are needed, maybe more, as more calories are burned when calves are cold.

“Calves can starve to death in cold weather if they’re not getting enough milk,” he said. “I’ve seen it happen.”

He added that milk replacers with higher crude protein and higher fat levels are worth the additional cost because of the increased average daily gain and additional milk production levels achieved.

Killmer said birth weight should be doubled from birth to weaning. After that, he said, they should start growing at about 2.2 pounds per day and going down slightly after that.

ISU findings showed Holstein heifers should weigh between 825 and 900 pounds by the time they are 13 to 15 months.

They need an average daily gain of between 1.7 and 2 pounds in order to reach that weight before they are bred.

If measuring stature, the studies showed calves should be at least 50 inches at the hip and at least 48 inches at the withers by the time they are 13 months old.

If they continue to grow properly they should reach pre-calving weight around 1,350 pounds.

Killmer said:

1). An average of 5 percent of calves die within 24 hours to 60 days.

2). 2 percent die between 61 to 120 days of age.

3). 1 percent die between 121 and 180 days.

4). 1 percent die between six months to one year.

5) .5 percent of calves die from one year to freshening.

He said any operation that has mortality or morbidity rates exceeding these figures should re-evaluate their calf and heifer rearing practices.

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