Adding Efficiency to the Calf Operation

by Kelly Driver

As labor costs continue to rise, many calf raisers are looking for every bit of increased efficiency they can add to their operations, while still maintaining top level care for the calves. Let’s take a look at some of the areas different producers have focused on in the quest for greater efficiency.

Feeding milk. The most important and time-consuming task in calf raising is feeding, whether it is milk, water or calf starter. And so, it naturally becomes one of the first places we look to gain efficiency. For smaller operations, it may mean an investment in a motorized device with a tank to deliver milk or water without carrying countless pails from the milk room to each calf individually. For larger operations hutch operations, a bottle trailer to fill, deliver and even wash the bottles may fill the need to feed more calves in timely fashion.

Portable milk pasteurizers offer efficiency when feeding a smaller number of calves. These units are versatile enough to batch pasteurize whole milk and the unit can then be wheeled to the calf housing area to dispense the milk. These units can also be used to reliably mix milk replacer for delivery as well. One farm I work with regularly found the time spent at each feeding reduced from 2.5 hours to 20 minutes when they converted to a portable pasteurizer rather than multiple trips carrying pails of milk to their calf area.

Photo: Calf-Star.com

When feeding hundreds or thousands of calves’, bottle trailers, like the one at left available from Calf-Star, are available in different sizes that can make feeding milk much more efficient. These stainless-steel trailers have bottle compartments where calf raisers can fill the bottles and feed by standing on the trailer side platform. To see this trailer in use, click here.

Once feeding is complete, the trailer returns to the milk kitchen area and the bottle compartments can be flipped upside down to wash, eliminating the time to hand washing bottles.

Grain cart. Prior to re-purposing this gravity wagon into a grain cart, calf starter grains were being delivered to the 450-hutch calf nursery in bags at Lamb Farms, Inc. in New York. “The cost difference between bagged and bulk feed alone paid for this in just four months,” notes Kendra Lamb. “That doesn’t even factor in the labor savings of being able to drive through the hutch area and just fill buckets to feed.”

Bedding hutches. It is no secret that adding straw to hutches demands time and labor, often several times each week in colder climates. One of the most common discussions I have on farm visits is how to make bedding hutches less labor intense. For Probst Feedlot LLC, a 725-hutch calf nursery in central Illinois, the decision to purchase a Teagle bale processor was easy. The bedding chopper holds two 4-foot square bales at a time, allowing Probst’s team to bed 100 hutches every 20 minutes. The Probst team figures the equipment purchase of both a used tractor and the bale shredder paid for itself in less than a year, as bedding by hand would require another full-time employee on the team. With the use of the bale processor, bedding costs per calf are 17 cents per day, including labor, at the calf nursery. To see the system, visit https://www.teaglemachinery.com/en-US/Products/Bale-Processors/Telehawk.

Washing hutches. It is sometimes surprising how many farms I visit are still moving hutches one at a time to the area where they are pressure washed and cleaned. And it is especially surprising that as herds grow, this practice gets overlooked in the quest for more efficiency.

Imagine how much time would be saved if a simple attachment to the front of a tractor or skidsteer moved 4-6 hutches at a time to the wash area? Two different producers in the Northeastern U.S. have created hutch movers that pick the hutches off the ground, carry them and hold while they are pressure washed and then return the hutches to a clean location, setting them neatly in a row. If this seems like something that only happens in a calf caregiver’s dream, take a look at the images below. Both are designed to quickly attach to the front of equipment likely already in use at the calf nursery each day.

Washing pens. Similar to some of the innovative hutch movers we have seen, here are some pen wash racks that producers have created that can also be easily picked up and moved with a tractor to clean pen pieces more efficiently.

The dictionary defines efficiency as “the (often measurable) ability to avoid wasting materials, energy, efforts, money, and time in doing something or in producing a desired result.” In calf raising that may mean the ability to do our work of raising healthy animals well and without waste of feed, labor, or time. In farming, efficiency also equates to real labor and cost savings for the operation.

Kelly Driver, MBA has been involved in the New York dairy industry all her life. She is the Eastern US & Canada Territory Manager for Calf-Tel. Feel free to contact her at kellydriver@hampelcorp.com with your calf questions or suggest a topic you would like addressed in a future blog.

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Single or Ready to Mingle?

Could pooling high-quality colostrum benefit long-term calf immunity?

by Cari Reynolds, W.H. Miner Institute    

To ensure that calves achieve adequate passive transfer, feeding colostrum from a single dam is considered the standard. Pooling of colostrum is generally discouraged due to high risk of disease transmission and lowered colostrum quality due to the variability of immunoglobulin (IgG) levels among dams. In the spirit of efficiency, pooling colostrum on farms is not uncommon. A 2018 review of U.S. pre-weaned heifer raising practices published in the Journal of Dairy Science reported that of 104 farms surveyed across 13 states, 33 of those farms still pooled colostrum. Calves on U.S. farms fed pooled colostrum were 2.2 times more likely to experience failure of passive transfer than those calves fed colostrum from a single dam.    

If colostrum is pooled, it is recommended that only high-quality colostrum (≥50 mg/mL IgG or ≥22% Brix) from healthy cows is used, and pooling should not be practiced in situations where diseases could be transmitted through colostrum (i.e. Johne’s Disease). But since every cow is different in terms of pathogen exposure and immune function, could pooling of colostrum (if of high quality) actually be of benefit to the calf in terms of exposure to disease-specific antibodies and other immune qualities from different dams?

A recent article appearing in the Journal of Dairy Science from Teagasc, the agriculture and food development authority of Ireland, sought to close this knowledge gap by evaluating if pooled colostrum from several cows actually broadened the variety of antibodies that a calf received, and if this practice would improve disease-specific immunity throughout the first year of life. There is currently little data to compare immunity in calves fed either single-dam or pooled colostrum, and also to determine even in herds where mean colostrum IgG is high, if pooling can still affect colostrum quality. Understanding if there are differences in immunity between colostrum sources would give new insight and understanding of the places that pooled colostrum could be used.

In a nonconsecutive two-year study (2016 and 2018) that included 320 cows and 120 heifer calves (either Holstein-Friesian or Holstein-Friesian x Jersey), blood samples were taken from the cows close to parturition to determine immune profile and exposure to common infectious pathogens. Enrolled calves received one of three treatments: maternal colostrum (MC), nonmaternal colostrum (NMC; colostrum from another dam), or pooled colostrum (PC) from several cows at equal ratios. Colostrum was tested with a Brix refractometer to ensure that quality across all three treatment groups remained similar, and any colostrum with a Brix reading below 22% was not used. Calves in each treatment group received colostrum within 2 hours of birth at 8.5% of body weight, and either received subsequent feedings of milk replacer (calves enrolled in 2016) or transition milk from the same source as their treatment assignment (calves enrolled in 2018).

Despite variability in mean colostrum IgG between 2016 and 2018 (71.2 and 97.0 mg/mL, respectively), colostrum quality across both study years remained extremely high (mean 84.2 mg/mL). There were no differences in IgG concentrations between the pooled colostrum and the sources used for pooling, and colostrum IgG concentrations were highest in the NMC treatment group (mean 94.2 mg/mL). However, 24-hour serum IgG concentrations were greater in those calves fed colostrum from a single dam (either maternal or nonmaternal). Apparent efficiency of absorption (AEA), or the amount of IgG absorbed into the calf’s system relative to the amount of IgG that was ingested, was lower in those calves receiving pooled colostrum. This may be attributable to IgG in the gut binding to the variety of pathogens present in pooled colostrum, leaving less to be absorbed into the bloodstream. At 1 month of age, calves in the MC treatment group had the highest number of antibodies to bovine viral diarrhea (BVD), but no treatment effect was observed for other common diseases. Regardless of treatment, maternal antibody survival rates in the calves ranged from 4-7 months for a range of diseases, including BVD, Salmonella, Leptospirosis, parainfluenza virus (PI-3), bovine respiratory syncytial virus (BRSV), Rotavirus, and Coronavirus. These results suggest that high-quality colostrum, whether pooled or single-dam, provided calves with cross-protection against different strains of bacteria and viruses and explains the similar immunity across groups. However, more work to determine the exact relationship between colostrum and disease-specific immunity is necessary. It is also important to note that the colostrum in this study was not subjected to heat treatment, which may have resulted in more immunoglobulins available for absorption. Higher colostrum IgG concentration, as well as feeding of transition milk to those calves enrolled in 2018, may also have influenced antibody survival rates.

This study suggests that if best practices are followed when pooling colostrum (only using good quality from healthy cows, equal portions across cows, and proper storage), adequate levels of IgG could be maintained. Rigorous criteria and management is very important to be able to successfully use pooled colostrum, and feeding individual sources is still highly encouraged as much more information is still needed to fully understand if there could be additional benefit. So whether you keep it single or choose to mingle, ensuring colostrum quality is still the best way to set calves up for success.

Cari Reynolds earned a BS in Biology from University of Scranton and a Master of Public Health from the University of Massachusetts – Amherst. After several years working in the public health sector, Cari returned to her agricultural interests and she is currently a research intern at W.H. Miner Institute. Cari is a Ph.D. student in Animal Science at University of Vermont, where her research will focus on management and preventative strategies to mitigate diseases that impact both human and animal health. She can be reached at reynolds@whminer.com.

Feeding Calves to Weather Winter

by Sarah Morrison, Ph. D., Miner Institute

The thermoneutral zone of a calf under three weeks of age is between 59 and 77℉ (15 and 25°C).  Below the thermoneutral zone the heat that a calf normally produces is equal to, or less than, the amount of heat lost and the calf experiences cold stress.  Therefore, to maintain body temperature, the calf must either consume more energy to generate more metabolic heat or else the calf will be forced to use what limited body reserves it has for this purpose.  This prioritization of nutrients will always go first to maintenance (thermal regulation, immune and stress responses) and then toward growth.  With this in mind there are several feeding strategy considerations that can support calves through winter.

The youngest calves rely heavily on milk or milk replacer for the nutrients they need to support maintenance and growth but we must not forget about water and calf starter. Although calves less than three or four weeks of age are probably not consuming enough starter to appreciably contribute to their requirements, early starter intake is beneficial for initiating the rumen development process.  Starter and water should be offered during this time as these two things are very important for hydration, rumen development, and eventual weaning. 

Fuel the fire. Offer starter from birth as calves will increase, and often double, the starter they consume each week.  Depending on the milk or milk replacer feeding program, you may not see large amounts of starter intake initially. Still, the cumulation of starter intake before weaning is very important for weaning success and preventing postweaning slumps.  Initiation of starter intake stimulates fermentation of that feedstuff in the rumen.  Fermentation generates metabolic heat which helps calves consuming starter tolerate a wider range of environmental conditions (i.e. they can tolerate a colder environment). 

The 4:1 rule.  Calf feeders often fight with frozen water pails in colder temperatures, which can be pretty frustrating!  However, water is THE most essential nutrient for animals and, as a result, should not be abandoned in winter.  Water is not only the number one requirement for animals; it is crucial for starter intake and rumen development.  A good rule of thumb for calf water consumption is the 4:1 rule as calves will consume four parts water for every 1-part starter they consume. 

Calves may also increase the amount of water they drink in response to the solid concentration in milk or milk replacer.  Increasing milk solids is often a method used in cold temperatures to support increased nutrient requirements.  As solids increase above 14% in milk replacer, expect calves to drink more water.  In the first weeks of life, calves drink 1.5 to 3 quarts/liters of water a day, whereas by a month of age, calves will consume around 4-8 quarts/liters of water per day.  It is important to note that water provided in milk or milk replacer is not sufficient on its own to meet the needs of the calf.  Free choice water should be provided on its own so that calves may regulate their intake in response to what they require based on solids percentage in the liquid diet or based on their starter intake. 

Timing.   Calves should have free access to water throughout the day and from birth.  However, when temperatures get consistently below freezing, it can be challenging to battle frozen water in buckets.  Therefore, offering smaller amounts of warm water to the youngest calves (less than three weeks of age) multiple times throughout the day will help promote water intake.  Provide 2 quarts of water to the youngest calves after milk or milk replacer feeding.  An additional water feeding in the middle of the day would provide an opportunity for the calves to consume more water.  For older calves eating more starter, increasing the amount of water offered after milk or milk replacer feeding is vital.  As calves wean, providing water during regular milk or milk replacer feeding times will encourage starter intake in these calves.   

Temperature matters.  Milk and water consumed by calves can impact the amount of energy needed to maintain normal body temperature (101-102⁰F).  If calves consume milk or water that is below their normal body temperature, they must expend additional energy to warm their drink to normal body temperature, which increases maintenance requirements. 

Therefore, the temperature of milk or milk replacer provided to calves is important to monitor so that it is provided at the appropriate temperature to minimize the effect of cold temperatures for young calves. Regardless of the nutritional value, make sure every liquid meal a calf gets is at or above body temperature (target 105⁰F) when the calf is consuming that meal.  Usually, milk replacer tags have recommended mixing temperatures.  However, it is important to ensure that when that milk replacer finally makes it to the calf it is not below 105⁰F. 

Furthermore, calves prefer to drink warm water.  Ideally, offer water at 100°F or just above.  By providing warm water compared to cold water, the amount of energy expended by the calf to warm water up to the calf’s body temperature is minimized.  Cold water will also reduce the temperature of the rumen.  Work in the 1960s measured the change in rumen temperature in response to different water temperatures.  Calves were fed 46-81°F water, and it dropped the temperature of the rumen for approximately 1-2 hours by as much as 15°.  Whereas 99°F water only minimally changed rumen temperature for a shorter period.  If the temperature of the rumen drops, this may reduce the efficiency of the rumen and also reduce the amount of metabolic heat produced from fermentation. 

Things to Remember. Overall, providing water and starter from a young age can help support calves during winter.  Starter is important for rumen development and can provide some metabolic heat for that calf.  Do not forget about water for young calves!  It is essential from a hydration standpoint and essential for rumen development and efficiency.  Strategically plan when and how much water you offer to calves depending on their age and the amount of starter they are eating.  Can you find a way to provide warm water throughout the day to help encourage calves to drink and find ways to increase starter intake? 

Sarah Morrison, Ph.D. is a Research Scientist at the William H. Miner Agricultural Research Institute in Chazy, NY.Sarah grew up on her family’s dairy farm in Addison County, Vermont. She has a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Animal Science from the University of Vermont and a Master’s of Science and a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois. Her research at Miner focuses on dairy cattle nutrition and management, with a focus on calves and heifers. She can be contacted with questions at morrison@whminer.com.

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Finding the Best Calf Jacket for Winter Weather

by Kelly Driver, MBA

Photo by S. Morrison

As I sat down to write on this snowy morning in New York state, I was reminded of a conversation I had a few days ago about the differences in calf jackets. And yes, there is a difference. They are not created equal at all. And unless you are lucky enough to live in an area where the temperature never dips below 50oF, you have probably had to purchase jackets for the youngest herd members.

Too often we farmers tend to shop for calf jackets based solely on price, not necessarily the qualities and materials the jacket is made of. One of my hobbies is sewing and over the years I have learned about the properties of many different types of fabrics and clothing materials. I thought it might be worth chatting about some of those differences as they relate to the calf jacket.

First, let’s think about the basic parts of a jacket:

Shell. The shell of a calf jacket is the outermost portion and is the calf’s first line of defense from the elements and is also where the color and style points are on display. Elements we often look at in the calf jacket shell are the fabric type and water resistance, as well as the closure features – like buckles or Velcro that are strong enough to stay on the calf as they move about.

Filling. The filling of a jacket is what provides the most warmth. For example, a nylon or polyester coat usually doesn’t keep you very warm, but stuff it with down or a tightly woven polyester filling and it instantly becomes a protective layer against freezing temperatures and winds. Jackets filled with real down, like duck or goose feathers, offer one of the warmest, lightweight fillings available. Unfortunately, they are not waterproof and are very slow to dry, which doesn’t work well in the calf care world.

One of the lightest and very warmest filling materials offered is ThinsulateTM, a 3M product which is made of tiny polyester fibers that are super dense and because of their size are able to be woven with hardly any gaps between the fibers. This makes them very warm, as well as extremely water resistant. This technology can be a bit more expensive, but is worth every penny. Think about the times you have seen someone with a light-weight looking jacket on during a snow and wind storm and they appear to be quite warm and comfortable. It’s highly likely their jacket contains this material.

Lining. The lining of a jacket provides an inner layer of warmth, as well as helping the jacket maintain its shape. It generally provides a soft layer between the calf and any of the coarser materials used for the filling or shell. If we think about the lining in terms of our own human jackets, this layer is often quite soft and may contain polyester, silk or satin fabrics for comfort.

Now, let’s think about the best materials for each of those jacket parts:

Types of Shell Fabrics. I have seen a wide variety of fabrics used for the shell of calf jackets, including wool, fleece, polyester, nylon, flannel and denim. While materials like wool, fleece and flannel lead the purchaser to believe the calf jacket will be warm, we are forgetting that these fabrics are not waterproof. And as calf raisers, we all know that liquids go in the front of the calf in the form of milk and water and urine is expelled from the back. This happens even when they are laying down and leads to a very wet jacket when these types of fabrics are used. A wet jacket on a small calf in cold temperatures only adds to the heat loss equation.

The best fabrics for the outer shell of calf jackets are polyester and nylon. Both fabrics are basically a soft form of plastic and the main differences are that nylon is softer and stronger than polyester and doesn’t hold dye as well, so the color choices are probably more muted. Some of the brighter colored calf jackets on the market, like the pink ones available from Calf-Tel, are a nylon/polyester blend. Because of polyester’s water-resistant qualities and its absorption of dyes, it is often blended with other materials for the shell of both calf and human jackets. Polyester itself will protect from a medium amount of wind. Just one word of caution with polyester or its blends – read the care label when washing and drying. Polyester shrinks! Be certain to read the care label in the calf jacket to assure many years of use.

Types of Filling. I have seen jackets sold at different price points that are filled with layers of flannel, wool, and very thin sheets of polyester, a product sometimes used in lightweight quilts. In my opinion the key thing to be considered with a filling is the true insulating value it offers the calf, just as we expect a winter jacket to keep our children warm in cold and windy conditions.

The best product choice for filling a calf jacket is 3MTM ThinsulateTM insulation. It is lightweight, warm, and thin enough to allow the calf to move about freely. The fine fibers in this insulation are designed to help trap and hold body heat, while allowing moisture to escape. ThinsulateTM comes in different grams of insulating value, but as the graphic below indicates, for the stationary body, 200g offers the most insulating value. Let’s think now about the amount of time young calves spend resting and we have found the best option for filling calf jackets.

Source: ThinsulateTM

 Of course, this technology costs a bit more than some of the less-insulating, water-repellant fillings on the market today.

Types of Lining. On the lining, we normally are looking at a fabric that is both soft and water repellant. I do see some cheaper calf jacket styles that will have fleece or flannel linings, but again in the best interests of keeping the calf truly warm and dry, polyester or nylon blends are the best option for their water-repellant quality.

Just as we shop for jackets that will keep our youngest human family members warm, we should give the same consideration to our youngest herd members who lack the body fat reserves to keep themselves warm in the coldest temperatures.

I like to equate the difference in calf jackets to this: Would we send a young child skiing down a mountainside in a simple, single layer windbreaker or would we be certain they were wearing a high quality, triple layer jacket offering real insulation from the winter winds? I think our calves should be treated no differently. Kelly Driver, MBA has been involved in the New York dairy industry all her life. In addition to raising dairy calves and replacement heifers, she is the Eastern US & Canada Territory Manager for Calf-Tel. Feel free to contact her at kellydriver@hampelcorp.com with your calf questions or suggest a topic you would like addressed in a future blog.

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