September 5, 2017 at 3:32 p.m.

Calf raising considered 'most important' job on dairy farms

Gary Geisler
Gary Geisler

By By Ron Johnson- | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

GREEN BAY, Wis. - What's the most important job on a dairy farm? Some folks might say it's milking, or making top-shelf feed.
But Gary Geisler, a regional calf and heifer specialist with Purina Animal Nutrition, votes for raising calves as the most important task. He talked about improving calf wellness at the Dairy Calf and Heifer Association Conference April 1 in Green Bay, Wis.
Geisler made his case by reminding that calves are the future cows - and therefore the future milk producers - on dairy farms. Their care when young influences how fast they grow, their rumen development, and their milk production potential.
Let's say a calf gains more than one pound a day. Each extra pound of weight per day, above one pound, correlates to an average of 1,083 pounds more milk, Geisler said,
Looking at Holstein calves, the standard target for growth is a doubling of the birth weight between the time a calf is 24 hours old and when she is 60 days old. During the next 60 days, a Holstein calf should be able to put on 2.2 pounds a day, Geisler said. And between 121 and 180 days old, she should average at least two pounds per day.
Geisler suggested monitoring calves' growth and keeping track of the numbers. A good time to do that, he said, is when calves are being moved.
Along with monitoring calves' weight, Geisler urged care providers to remember, they are working with babies. As such, he advised being calm and gentle with them.
When calves are bigger and going into group pens, keep an eye on them to be sure they can find their new sources of feed and water. One calf raiser, he said, takes the time to take each calf to the waterer, and splashed water on its face.
Of course, not all calves are going to live. But Geisler offered some target rates that can help calf raisers tell if they're doing better than average or substandard.
Between 24 hours old and 60 days, the target for death loss should be below five percent, Geisler said. For calves 61 to 120 days old, the death loss should be under two percent. And for calves 121 to 180 days old, the death loss should fall below one percent.
How about sick calves? What's considered normal there?
Looking at scours, Geisler said just 25 percent or less of calves 24 hours to 60 days old should have the condition. Between 61 and 120 days old, that should drop to two percent or less. And for calves 121 to 180 days old, scours should affect less than one percent.
Turning to respiratory diseases, Geisler said less than 10 percent of calves younger than 60 days should need individual treatment. That rises to less than 15 percent for calves 61 to 120 days old, but falls to less than two percent for calves 11 to 180 days old.

Signs of sickness
Just what signs of sickness should calf care providers watch for?
A calf that is slow to drink its milk or replacer might be ill, as might one that doesn't finish its milk. Calves that spend more time than normal lying and resting might be feeling under the weather.
Pay attention to calves that seem withdrawn - not interested in what's going on around them, Geisler advised. Note the amount of starter feed a calf eats. If it seems like it's not enough, the calf could be sick.
Fast breathing - more than 50 breaths a minute - is another signal of sickness. So is a temperature above a calf's normal 105 degrees Fahrenheit. Geisler recommended that calf tenders carry thermometers with them. Another sign of sickness is a calf that is weak or lacks coordination.
Moving to specifics, Geisler said to look for signs of scours. Pay attention the amount of water each calf drinks. Is it more or less than normal?
Watch for signs of dehydration, along with watery eyes and a nasal discharge, along with coughing. Finally, watch to see whether a calf is doing what its penmates are, or if it's simply off by itself.
Normal, healthy calves should be interacting and playing - acting like kids do, Geisler said. In addition, they should appear bright and alert, active and energetic, eating and chewing their cuds, and growing.

Managers surveyed
Geisler conducted an informal survey of calf managers this past winter. The Wisconsin farms had from 40 to 240 calves on milk. Those farms also had from two to six people, full-time or part-time, tending the calves. Half the farms fed calves twice a day and half fed them three times a day.
Among the questions Geisler asked was what calf caregivers want themselves and their peers to do more of. One said, "have a true love for animals and do a good job of watching for problems."
Another said, "Be observant, always." A third said, "Walking pens (and looking) for sick calves, bedding more often, keeping water clean."
A fourth calf manager said, "....always watching and thinking of things to help improve our processes." Another said, "Look at calves more often and check temperatures."
Geisler also asked for examples of great calf care.
Here's some of what he was told.
"When we had sub-zero temperatures predicted, my two lead feeders decided to flex their own schedules and switch to three-time-a-day feeding, to provide the extra nutrition needed for the bitter-cold temperatures."
Another said, "Taking the time to help a sick calf drink her milk. She needed the calories to overcome her sickness."
A third said, "With the extremely cold temperatures we have been having, my calf feeding team was very diligent in keeping the bedding fluffed up in the hutches."
Geisler concluded by urging his listeners to help build better heifers for the future of your dairy. You have the most important job.
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