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Calves: Rearing Them Right

By Stephen Roberts

Tips for rearing calves from former New Zealand dairy farmer, agricultural consultant, and all-round farming legend Vaughan Jones, interviewed by Stephen Roberts.

Vaughan, let’s talk first about the financial impact of correct calf rearing.

Correctly-reared calves continue to grow at a faster rate after weaning than poorly-reared ones
Correctly-reared calves continue to grow at a faster rate after weaning than poorly-reared ones.

If you are too busy, unsure about calf rearing, or don’t have the proper facilities, then forget it and buy weaners. Sometimes it is more profitable to buy yearlings, which often sell cheaply.

Calf rearing is a specialty job requiring specific knowledge. Correctly-reared calves continue to grow at a faster rate after weaning than poorly-reared ones, and the eventual size of adult animals relates to their weaning weight. It’s the farmer’s knowledge of this that encourages the high bidding at calf sales for well-reared ones.

How important is managing cow nutrition prior to calving?

Successful calf rearing starts before calving, with the dams not being too thin or too fat, on a rising plane of nutrition from drying off to calving. Calves can die within the first month of being born due to mineral deficiencies in the dams before birth. Deficiencies can be caused by insufficient feed for the dam or poor quality feed that lacks necessary minerals, especially selenium, copper, and iodine.

When dry cows are on maintenance diets of 15 to 20 pounds of pasture dry matter per cow per day, they receive around 0.003 ounces of copper (Cu) per day. They really need about 10 times that amount to build up their levels and those in the calves’ livers. Perform liver tests and if necessary supplement with copper or whatever is required. There is very little copper in milk, so newborn calves don’t get much until they start eating solids. For this reason, calves also benefit when given a good soluble mineral mix.

When is the best time to remove the calf from the dam?

First you have to decide if you’re going to rear the calves artificially. If so, when possible, remove the calf from the cow within 12 hours of birth and place it in a warm building before it can form an attachment. It should have been well-fed, so leave it for 12 hours without anything to drink and then train it to suck from a warmed teat. If it has not drunk, give it about half a gallon of colostrum immediately.

newborn calf
When is the best time to remove the calf from the dam?

The alternative is rearing calves on cows. Cows usually identify calves by smell, so put a little molasses on the noses of the cow and calf. Attaching collars to the cow’s calf and one other, held together by a rope or chain about two feet long helps avoid cows favoring their calf. When settled, do the same to another two or three calves and wean the best ones at seven to eight weeks. After weaning, the once-bred heifers can be finished and sold for slaughter before they are downgraded to meat quality.

Calves grow better when grazed without their dams on slightly less and/or poorer pastures, partly because the dams select the best forage, competing with the calves.

Another way is to select the same cows each year to rear the calves, drafting them into a pen at each milking and letting the calves in to suck — initially twice a day, then once a day after all calves are three weeks old.

Check all calves to ensure that they are getting enough milk. The cows you chose must be ones that don’t fret all day while kept in a small enough pen so they don’t kick the calves and will let their milk down to machines after weaning. With this system there is no bonding or favoring. Be sure to check every few days for mastitis. The farm must be such that the calves can graze completely away from the cows, during feeding and after weaning, for several months or up to a year if pos­sible. Otherwise sucking from any cow in sight can occur.

In addition to being calmer, do older cows produce better colostrum than first calvers?

Yes. Also, colostrum on the first day of calving is the highest quality. High producers’ colostrum will not be as concentrated. I advise feeding cows ad­equately all their lives on minerally-bal­anced pastures and adding a top quality soluble mineral mix to their water.

Calves and Nutrition

I know you are very passionate about nutrition. What are your recommendations on minerals?

Calves do much better when supple­mented with minerals, so after the first week add dissolved mineral mix to the milk at 0.07 ounces per calf or 0.006 percent of the liveweight per calf. I’ve not seen or heard of calf feed that has sufficient minerals, so minerals have to make up the difference and result in better calves for little extra cost — there is less pasture eaten, faster growth, and better health, with less future drenching for internal parasites.

cows identify calves by smell
Cows identify calves by smell.

Signs of malnutri­tion from insufficient minerals include brown patches (on Holsteins) from lack of copper, hair on crests from lack of zinc, rough hair from lack of sodium, sad or starry eyes from low magnesium, swollen glands on the side of the jaw from lack of iodine, and weak muscles from low selenium.

Calf muscle tissue development needs protein and limited fat. A high-quality, palatable, powder-based milk replacement can be fed after colos­trum has been fed for at least the first few days, but preferably feed colostrum as long as possible.

Milk replacers should have about 25 percent protein and 20 percent fat and should be fed after about four days. Bought feed should have protein of about 20 percent, fat at 4 percent, a max­imum of 6 percent fiber, and an energy rating of 12.5 MJ per kg of dry matter. This energy rating compares with a very high-quality grass and clover pasture.

What special water requirements do calves have?

Potable water must always be avail­able to calves. Clean the water troughs regularly and clean the troughs in pad­docks each time before calves go in until they are at least six months old. All water troughs on farms should be kept clean to avoid infection and to encour­age animals to drink more. If they don’t drink as much as they should, they will eat less, which will slow their growth.

One frequently sees calves reared on long, lodging, stemmy, trampled pasture, which they don’t like and so don’t eat. What’s the answer?

If special calf paddocks are used, have cattle chew the calf paddocks down monthly to remove the soiled, trampled grass and to freshen the pas­ture, making it more palatable and spreading the rumen microflora. Top quality hay from the first week is also important. Good, short, green-colored hay with a high clover content encour­ages consumption, rumen development, and calf growth; bad hay or straw won’t. Calves benefit from good hay: lucerne, clover, or grass hay that has not seeded, in that order until three months old. Young animals are born with no rumen bacteria and must get it from older ani­mals, preferably by grazing in a rotation with them.

Those pastures should have the op­timal levels of trace elements necessary for good animal health.

Do calves have a preference for grass type?

Calves’ first preference is short, 15 cm leafy pasture and all grasses other than ryegrass, assuming the grasses are all the same length. Many perennial ryegrasses are high-endophyte and thus unpalatable. If possible, sow endophyte-safe grasses on the entire farm, but especially in calf paddocks. Current research shows that Bealey with NEA2, which is a safe, palatable endophyte, is the best by far in yield, handling droughts and animal preference, but it must be fed and handled correctly. Avoid grazing paddocks that have re­cently had effluent spread on them; they can have higher parasite numbers and taste foul to calves that are fussy eaters.

Calves and Disease Prevention

Changing the subject, what is the best way to avoid scours?

As in everything, prevention is bet­ter than cure, so use preventive prac­tices. For example, don’t overfeed, and avoid excessive use of antibiotics or sulfa drugs as a form of control. Doing so is against world human food health requirements and can lead to antibiotic resistance in the animals and consum­ers of their meat. Most calf rearers find it cheaper and more profitable to spend 10 minutes a day on cleanliness and spraying with a good fungicide-disin­fectant than to have to treat scouring calves.

Calves in pasture
As in everything, prevention is bet­ter than cure, so use preventive prac­tices.

If you do have scours on your calves, feed bentonite, which aids digestion. It also allows more milk to be fed in the early stages of life for faster growth with less over-feeding scours. Other solutions include 0.1 ounces of vitamin C per day and rennet products, which aid digestion.

With regard to pastures, change paddocks. This is easier with beef than with dairying, where calves are usually close to the farm dairy. Graze calf pad­docks short with other types of animals or older similar animals to remove parasite havens and soiled pasture so the sun can get to the base.

Any other tips for the calf rearers out there?”

First decide how many calves you will rear. Plan the building and manure disposal system — buildings must be able to be opened on the sunny side. Calves reared in dry, sheltered condi­tions grow 30 percent faster than those in wet, cold situations. Calves need protection from cold winds and rain because they have a high skin-to-body weight and little body insulation. Low-cost calf covers could be good value for winter-born calves in cold areas, un­less well-sheltered. A client on a high-altitude farm near the center of New Zealand’s North Island asked me about buying covers to stop his one-month-old Holstein bull calves from shivering in frosty weather. I suggested he give them soluble mineral mix at 0.006 percent of live body weight in the milk or in warm water immediately after their milk. The shivering stopped in three days, making covers unnecessary, and the calves grew much better.

This article appeared in the June 2013 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Stephen Roberts is a journalist in New Zealand. For more information on Vaughan Jones, visit grazinginfo.com.