What’s Your Calf Management Strategy?

Calf management strategies are continuously evolving as market conditions and social pressures evolve. In this post, we compare a few different options and highlight which practices are fundamental to raising the best calf, while being mindful of future changes on the horizon, so you can plan for long-term success.

Calf management strategies are continuously evolving as market conditions and social pressures evolve. In this post, we compare a few different options and highlight which practices are fundamental to raising the best calf, while being mindful of future changes on the horizon, so you can plan for long-term success.

By on August 11, 2022
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What's Your Calf Management Strategy?

Modern Calf Barn

Historically, before the widespread use of sexed semen, dairies raised all heifer calves born. They focused on low daily rearing cost and sold surplus animals when heifer rearing success and the milking herd population strategies permitted. Unfortunately, the selling of surplus springing heifers is rarely profitable under today’s market conditions.

Increasingly, dairy replacement management strategies have changed to one where sufficient heifer calves are reared to meet the herds population needs. Genomics and use of traditional measures have been used to identify superior animals within the herd that are bred to elite genetics, while lower ranking animals are bred to beef. Financial success with this strategy requires the following:

  • Optimize culling of the milking herd to minimize net replacement costs. In most cases, this means reducing the level of involuntary culling through excellent herd health programs.

  • Minimize mortality in the calf program.

  • Minimize morbidity in the calf program, particularly regarding minimizing the impact of respiratory disease as it can permanently influence the lifetime producing ability of the animal.

  • Harvest the genetic potential of each anima to achieve higher preweaned calf growth rates.

The strategy needs to change from one of low cost per day and early weaning, to a focus of raising a healthier calf with excellent growth to enable her to express her genetic potential and have a long herd life.   

Raising the Best Calf

This post will focus on how the calf autofeeder system can help achieve this outcome. First, one must have excellent newborn care and maternity management, or no system will succeed reliably. Next, utilize the following best calf management practices:

    • Background calves. Calves should still be housed individually and fed by bottle until milk or milk replacer intake exceeds 4L per day. An environment with excellent comfort, bedding and ventilation is of paramount importance.  Attentive personnel are requisite to achieve calves with strong appetites as early as possible in life. Move calves as soon as they meet these criteria.
    • Coach caretakers. Calves need to be gently trained to the autofeeder to assure it’s a pleasant experience. Personnel need to be patient and skilled in calf behavior to assure successful training and early detection of disease.
    • Focus on better growth. Set a goal for better growth during the first weeks of life. This is successfully achieved with the autofeeder that delivers smaller meals with more consistency than traditional bucket or bottle-feeding systems where calves were fed large volumes or milk or milk replacer twice daily at irregular intervals. Feeding plans for the autofeeder allow liberal daily intake of milk early in life but limit intake to smaller meals at more frequent intervals. 
    • Reduce post-weaning slump. Autofeeder systems provide the opportunity for higher milk feeding followed by weaning strategies involving step down reductions in milk to promote calf starter intake at a more appropriate age (earlier). Starter intake generally starts at an earlier age as calves learn from other calves within the same group. The incidence of the “post weaning” slump is rarely observed with autofeeder reared calves, as in addition to higher starter intake they are used to being in a group situation.
Autofeeder Advantages

Successfully raising the best calf possible becomes more achievable with an autofeeder due to several unique benefits:

  • Social development. Research and experiences by progressive dairies have shown that these calves adapt to weaning and group housing post weaning more readily and respond more positively to novel situations, such as robotic milking systems, pen moves, new feed or new people both during the rearing period and later in life as cows!
  • Data advancements. Calf management measures such as milk intake, drinking speed, unrewarded visits, activity, and body weight gain are available from the autofeeder system and are utilized to predict onset of disease. This information may be useful in predicting future performance as replacement heifers and lactating cows. Newer autofeeder systems provide access to this data via the “cloud” to calf care personnel, herd managers, veterinarians, consultants and researchers. Traditionally, the availability of data for calf management is poor and is largely historical in nature.
  • Employee elevation. Labor is a challenge with any calf raising system. Conventional bucket and bottle systems with individually reared calves will continue to face challenges in finding labor resources for the minimally skilled positions involved in feeding calves. Autofeeder systems may not result in a savings in labor costs, as fewer, but more highly skilled personnel become the primary labor resource.  However, one frequently finds that improved working conditions and job satisfaction are improved with autofeeder systems and result in less employee turnover.  We have “calf managers” rather than “calf feeders”.
Environmental & Social Considerations

Environmental considerations are important from many perspectives.  Unfortunately, the labor-intensive hutch systems provide a working environment which is not very desirable under the extremes of winter or summer weather. In such cases, employees are often not focused on successful calf management. Hutch systems also expose calves to these same environmental extremes which influence nutrient requirements and animal health, growth performance and efficiency.  Finally, hutch systems must consider the impact of nutrient excretion by calves and its contribution to whole farm nutrient balance. Achieving success with autofeeder systems requires the design and construction of cost-effective systems which provide excellent air quality and labor efficiency.

A final consideration in our calf management systems relates to how the general public and consumer of our dairy products perceives our industry.  Research has shown that the calf management system is a focal point for how we are perceived.  How are individual calf housing systems perceived vs. well designed group housing autofeeder systems? 

Prepare your calf raising system for long-term success by thinking through these elements, and aim to raise the best calf possible.

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