Animal Health

Proof how critical calf care is

By Dairy News

Half of a cow’s lifetime height and growth is achieved in the first six months of its life, according to a visiting American calf-rearing specialist.

David Kuehnel was raised on a family farm in Wisconsin, which reared 1200 specially-fed veal calves every year. He went on to major in Meat and Animal Science at the University of Wisconsin, and he is the former president of Milk Products for Land O’Lakes — the biggest producer of milk replacer in North America. Today, he runs consultancy firm Rule of Three.

Talking to dairy farmers throughout Victoria as a guest of Daviesway, David explained that 25 per cent of a calf’s lifetime weight gain also happened within that precious six-month window following birth.

And, for every additional 100 g of average daily weight gain (ADG) achieved from birth to breeding, producers could expect an additional 821 litres of production on the first three lactations — or a seven to one return-on-investment (ROI).

“We can argue whether or not it was an increase of 600 litres or 1000 litres,” David told one group in northern Victoria. “But the key point, and the takeaway message, is that the better the weight gain we achieve pre-puberty and pre-breeding age, the bigger the impact on the future milking ability of those individuals.

“And, you can’t recover it, if you don’t have it to begin with.

“There is no such thing as compensatory frame growth — a short calf will be a short cow. I’m talking not just scale and size. I’m also talking body, lung, liver and digestive capacity. They are all set in early life.”

He acknowledged that every operation was different, but stressed that the reality of the math, and the ROI didn’t change. The subjective part of the story lay only in the way that producers chose to prioritise their next generation.

Studies in the United States reveal that calves fed a higher solids diet the first eight weeks gained 11 kg (16.1 per cent) more weight, were 3.3 cm (3.8 per cent) taller, were 5.6 cm (7.3 per cent) longer and had 33 litres (17.2 per cent) more body volume.

David was sensitive to the cost of rearing replacement animals in a tight economy. But he offered some options to address the issue. Using a baseline of a 100-cow herd, he said producers needed 63 herd replacements if they had an average first-calving age of 23 months (and a cull rate of 30 per cent). At an average first-calving age of 24 months (with a cull rate of 40 per cent), the number of replacement heifers jumped to 88.

“I’d advise to invest only in the calves with the greatest potential and sell your surplus animals as early as possible,” he said. “Re-invest that money into rearing the calves you choose to keep, better.

“I think that’s a more positive result than saying, ‘I didn’t have enough money to raise them well, but I raised them all.”

As the conversation turned to the value of using probiotics in the calf shed, David said it was today an important part of the calf-rearing puzzle.

“We’ve learned so much about this subject in the last few years, and we now know there is a really strong interactive relationship between the balance of the bacteria in the gut, and the general health of the animal,” David said.

“The calf’s rumen and intestinal tract is not functioning when it is born,” he said. “We have to develop it.

“And, probiotics — when they are fed at high enough concentrations — have so much to do with developing and supporting the immune system.”

Daviesway recently introduced two powerful probiotics to the market — Bio-Calf [double strength probiotic powder milk additive for calves which contains Australia’s only all-natural coccidiostat] and Bio-Boost [a probiotic paste that includes 40 times more active ingredients than other products on the market].

Daviesway’s calf rearing specialist Brendan Johnson said David’s visit was part of Daviesway’s commitment to knowledge sharing at a time when it had never been more valuable for the industry.