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Raising healthy calves.

One of the most satisfying aspects of animal agriculture and working with animals is the birth and raising of babies. But it can also be one of the most challenging aspects of animal husbandry, as well. No matter what species of domesticated farm animal you may work with, you've no doubt had babies to take care of and each one requires care unique to its breed. I'll focus my attention on dairy farming and that neo-natal period of calf raising.

In the dairy industry babies represent the next generation of herd replacements and improved genetics, having a significant impact upon the future cash flow and profitability of the dairy farm. Plus, I think deep down, no one ever wants to see a baby die. It doesn't matter if you have a herd of a dozen cows or a herd numbering in the hundreds. Raising healthy calves all year long is a necessary and important part of dairy management. If you've ever been involved with calf raising on a dairy farm you'll know how much time and effort must be invested in keeping them alive and healthy.

Without a doubt, the single most important issue that needs to be addressed in order to raise calves successfully is cleanliness and sanitation. I would dare say that 80% or more of the challenges you face with raising calves can be overcome just by keeping them clean and dry all the time. And that cleanliness starts in the maternity area where the calf is born.

A 1,400 pound Holstein or a 1,000 pound Jersey cow are big, cumbersome animals and cows, by nature, aren't very clean creatures. When they decide to lie down and have their baby, it can be just about anywhere no matter if it's in a dirty barn or outside in a rainstorm. A significant factor in guaranteeing the health and life of a calf is how clean things are when it's born. If a calf is born in a wet and muddy environment, usually including manure, there's often little to prevent it from ingesting, swallowing or inhaling some of that filth during the birthing process. The calf is faced with a bacterial challenge right from the beginning that often requires a big dose of antibiotics in the first hours of life. A clean and dry, well bedded stall is a must for the maternity area.

I've spent years in the dairy industry observing births that occur in the most indescribable conditions, as a matter of routine on many dairies. Those dairies, needless to say, usually have very high mortality rates in poorly managed baby calf programs.

Along with cleanliness at the time of birth is the need to get fresh colostrum into the calf just as soon after birth as possible. Colostrum is that first milk that mother produces, rich in fat, antibodies, enzymes and vitamins. It's nature's way of giving a baby the help it needs to survive by reducing the incidence of diarrhea and pneumonia. Newborn calves as well as pigs, foals, sheep and goats, are born with few antibodies to ward off infections. Early feeding of colostrum in the first few hours of life is essential because after about 24 hours, the calf's ability to absorb the large colostrum molecules is greatly diminished.

Particularly in the dairy industry, we've upset that natural process of calf nursing immediately after birth by taking the calf away from the cow. I'm sure there are many dairies that still allow the newborn to nurse on a fresh cow for a day, but those farms are few and far between in today's industry. That shifts the responsibility completely onto the dairy farmer for the continued well-being of the animal. The calf is totally dependent upon the farmer and its survivability and health is now a function of how well its environment is managed.

Certainly the most challenging aspect of raising newborns is digestive upsets and diarrhea-commonly referred to as "the scours." Scours can come on quickly and must be addressed aggressively since the danger of dehydration is imminent and potentially fatal to the calf. Once again, attention to cleanliness and sanitation goes a long ways towards avoiding scours. There are nasty bacteria such as coliform and campylobacter that thrive in dirty conditions.

A baby calf does not have a functioning rumen when it's born. It's basically a mono-gastric at this point and must be fed accordingly. And that, of course, means a liquid diet of milk for the first several weeks of life. Many larger dairies have been feeding commercially manufactured powdered milk replacers for many years. The gold standard for the industry over the years has been the all milk (meaning all milk protein and no vegetable protein) 20-20 product (20% protein-20% fat). The all milk formulas have been superior to the vegetable formulas since the neonatal calf does a poor job of digesting vegetable proteins.

Still, there are many farms that feed fresh whole milk to their calves. There's nothing wrong with that at all and in many ways is advantageous to the 20-20 formulas since whole milk naturally has around 26% protein--helping the calf to grow a little bit faster. The main concern with whole milk from the farm is that it must be fresh and clean and not the waste milk from a sick cow.

Marie Tyler, who manages the calves on her family's dairy farm in Canterbury, Connecticut, has fed whole milk for years to her babies and has had no problems with it. Tyler admits that her colostrum feeding isn't as aggressive as it could be but in all other aspects, her calf program could be considered the epitome of how to raise healthy calves.

The calves are housed in a greenhouse type structure that was built around 2000. It covers about 1,000 square feet and has stood up very well to the stress of the seasons. Typically the barn will have about two dozen calves in it any time and can hold up to three dozen if needed. It can be opened on the sides for ventilation in the summer and buttoned up tight to retain heat in the winter. The calves have a fresh bed of wood shavings to lie on, underneath which is a bed of fine sand. They're housed in simple wire pens which can be easily moved and the bedding is changed daily. When you walk into this spic and span building, all you can smell is the pleasant scent of pine. Tyler agrees that cleanliness is the key to keeping the calves healthy.

Tom Perrachio, a dairyman in Coventry, Connecticut, agrees with the importance of keeping the calf environment clean. He, too, admits to not always doing a really good job of getting colostrum into a calf as quick as he should--mostly because of the time constraints on the dairy. Because it's not always possible to have fresh colostrum available in those first critical hours, Perrachio keeps a supply of frozen colostrum ready to be thawed just as soon as possible.

Tyler's baby calves are fed on the bottle for an entire week before they're transitioned to a pail. The calves are kept on whole milk up to eight weeks at which time they are weaned off. By that time they're eating a few pounds of a sweet-feed grain mix and nibbling at a little bit of hay. The sweet feed grain is introduced just a few days after birth giving the calves the opportunity to start nibbling as soon as they want. The grain also has a dose of monensin in it which functions as both a coccidiostat as well as a growth enhancer. Monensin is a product called an ionophore that has been approved for calves for many years and marketed under the brand name Rumensin. Its health benefits have been widely documented all over the country. Even though Tyler doesn't believe there's a health challenge with coccidia in her calves, the monensin will help prevent any outbreaks. Occasionally she'll send a fecal sample to the vet where it will be examined under a microscope to see if there are any coccidia oocytes present. Coccidiosis is a particularly insidious and commonly found disease that affects the calf's intestinal lining and, if left untreated long enough, will cause the calf to starve because nutrients are not being absorbed.


Tyler emphasizes that raising baby calves is all about individual attention. She keeps detailed records of the calves while they're in the barn allowing her to go back and check on past history and see what kinds of treatments and supplements were effective or not so effective. In her spacious barn it's very easy to observe the calves and you can see very quickly if one is not acting normally. She rarely has to administer antibiotics.

In spite of keeping everything ultra-clean, Tyler says she does still have to deal with scours. But she believes that most of the scouring problems come from the stress brought on by the extreme changes in weather. "When we get periods of high heat and humidity during the summer, it's hard to keep it cool in here and some of the calves will start scouring," she said. "Then when we have the extreme cold during the winter I have more problems then, too, particularly with the wide swings of temperature from day to night."

The Perrachio calf facility is also housed in a greenhouse type barn and the calves are bedded on sand most of the year with wood shavings added during the winter. As a normal practice no antibiotics or vaccines are administered during that neo-natal period. Calves are fed a combination of whole milk and powdered milk replacer and are weaned at about six weeks of age. A pelleted starter feed is offered to the calves soon after birth.

Perrachio says the scours can be a chronic problem in some calves and you just have to continually treat them. Eventually the calf will out grow the problem.

Marie Tyler emphasizes the need to always be looking at the manure of the calves. It may not sound like a fun thing to do, but the condition of the manure will tell you a lot about the health of the calf. She keeps a selection of electrolytes (there's an abundance of products on the market) that she administers to keep the minerals and vitamins up. She'll use probiotics if necessary and she even admitted to recently using Pepto-Bismol on one of the calves when nothing else was working. It just goes to show you that sometimes you just have to be creative when solving these problems.

And of course she makes sure that all the animals have plenty of water available all year and even more during the summer.

"Fresh water is an absolute must," she says. "During the summer when it gets really hot, the older calves will consume two, two-gallon pails of water, twice per day."

And that's on top of the milk they drink. Keeping calves hydrated both summer and winter is imperative to raising healthy calves.

Calves are just like children, really. They require extra special care when they're babies and you have to take care of them on a daily basis. The most successful calf raising programs are those where a team of people are committed to seeing it all done right and sound management is key to keeping your baby calves alive and healthy.
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Title Annotation:The cow barn
Author:Hibma, John
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Date:Nov 1, 2007
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