‘We don’t get a re-do’ on pre-weaning calf care

Getting it right from the start is the foundation for everything.

No matter how calves are housed — and regardless of whether they are managed individually or in groups — there’s no ‘do-over’ button on the two biggies at birth: Colostrum quality, quantity and timeliness and naval health with clean calving pens and immediate and sufficient dipping. 

Earlier this year, a Center for Dairy Excellence Cowside Conversations podcast featured calf management strategies as Jayne Sebright, the Center’s executive director discussed the topic of “getting things right from the start” with guests Greta Snider Halahan and Virginia Deffibaugh of Singing Brook Farm, near Imler, Pennsylvania.

Virginia is the on-site calf manager. Greta lives in Lebanon County and works remotely as herd manager for the 300-cow registered Holstein farm operated in Bedford County by her father Bruce Snider and her brother Ross.

Last year, the farm celebrated 70 years in registered Holsteins, founded by Greta’s grandparents Obie and Mary Ann Snider in 1951. In addition to milking 300 Holsteins, they raise all of their replacements, and Ross does custom work in addition to raising all the feed for the dairy.

Greta uses CowManager, and she found an app where ‘to-do’ lists between teammates can be organized by category. Slackbot is how she communicates in between her on-farm visits for four days every other week. She developed 24 animal care categories in Slackbot, and one is devoted to calf care.

Like many dairies today, the family is working together to figure out what the future looks like for them. Their calves are that future, and Greta and Virginia have worked with their nutrition consultant to revamp the calf management strategies in 2019, a process that has brought successes and continues to evolve as they screen further to learn more.

For example, Greta’s goal for average daily gain (ADG) is 2 pounds per day, and they averaged 1.9 pounds last year.

Anyone who has heard presentations on calf management by Mike Van Amburgh from Cornell or Jud Heinrichs from Penn State knows how important pre-weaning ADG is to reducing age at first calving and increasing lactation yield.

Studies show 22% of the variation in milk production is linked to what was their growth rate in the first six to eight weeks of life and whether or not the calves doubled their birthweight by weaning age.

Greta observes that the quantity, quality, and consistent timely delivery of colostrum are key to this equation, and the foundation of everything else they do.

In addition to a 1.9-pound ADG last year, their calf loss was 2 animals pre-weaning and 2 animals between weaning and first-calving. They set their goals for zero mortality and 10% morbidity.

Greta puts a lot of emphasis on building a healthy rumen during the pre-weaning period, explaining that she can see the connection when evaluating the cows in CowManager.

“What we are working toward is building a really efficient rumen. The ADG tells us how successful we are at doing that,” says Greta. “Our saying is ‘we don’t get a re-do.’”

The calf program begins in the transition cow pen. They top-dress with a pelleted electrolyte for the closeup cows in their last two weeks before calving. This has improved intakes. They also give a scourguard vaccine at dry-off.

They strive to keep the dry, prefresh and closeup pens from becoming overcrowded. Clean bedding in the calving area is another big priority, as is udder health.

“Udder health is incredibly important,” Greta explains. “Calves out of high-SCC cows are more likely to get respiratory issues. That’s what our data show us, so we prefer not to keep heifer calves from high-SCC cows.”

(In fact, some dairies — like Waddell Farms, Marshall, Wisconsin, milking 1000 cows and consistently earning annual awards for their milk quality — have observed how steps taken to optimize milk quality in the herd also benefit the quality production of colostrum. John and Karen Waddell have used Udder Comfort during transition for many years. “We spray all udders twice a day for 3 to 5 days after calving to produce higher quality milk, but we also start this with our 2-year-olds once a day 5 days pre-calving. It’s worth it to see more comfortable cows, higher quality milk, and better colostrum production from those first-calvers,” the Waddells explain.)

As for the calf program at Singing Brook in Pennsylvania, Greta and Virginia drilled into the pillars of what they do once the calves are born. They stressed two areas that stand out and must be done right in order for everything else they do to matter: Navals and colostrum.

Clean calving areas and dipped navals help prevent future illness. They dip immediately at birth, again when they take them to the calf barn, and again at the next two feedings.

Making sure calves get a minimum of 300 IgG of colostrum within four hours of birth is a key to raising a healthy calf to become a productive, healthy cow, they explain.

The milking employees at Singing Brook have a payment incentive tied to calf blood serum levels. They are paid to help achieve the farm’s goals with prompt attention to calves.

Virginia controls the testing, sorting and labeling of colostrum. Heifers and bulls get the same care, but the higher-quality colostrum is bagged and labeled for heifers while the colostrum testing below 224 is bagged and labeled for bulls.

“When a calf is born, everyone does the same thing. They go to the freezer, pull a bag of colostrum, and feed it. No one makes any decisions except to pull a bag labeled bull or heifer,” Virginia explains. “We bag every single calf. It became clear that we needed a process that is timely, simple, and one in which no one has to make a decision, a process where they can administer the bag and be done in a few minutes.”

The milker-incentive program ensures this gets done timely for every calf born overnight because the milkers are the first to the barn.

Calves are tested at 2 to 3 days of age for blood serum levels, and the incentives are paid based on that. Being consistent with testing also helps them track more closely any calves with lower serum IgG levels.

On the first day of birth, calves also get First Defense Tri-shield and a BoSe shot. At three to four days of age, they get Inforce 3 and another dose at weaning.

Electrolytes (a sweet treat product) are also fed routinely once a day as soon as calves are off colostrum until they are three weeks old.

“This increases their fluid intakes, so they eat more grain at a younger age, faster, for higher growth rates,” says Virginia, noting a different electrolyte is on hand for any calf that is lagging and needs a boost.

Calf housing is the same solar barn Greta’s grandfather built when she was 12. Calves are in individual wire-metal enclosures there. They can see each other and interact but are managed and monitored individually.

After weaning, when Virginia sees they are ready, she moves them to transition groups of 3 to 4 calves. From there, they are moved to the heifer barn in groups of 8 to 10.

At Singing Brook, calves are introduced to grain in the form of a pelleted feed, immediately after they are done getting colostrum. The electrolytes are introduced at the same time and are offered two hours after the milk feeding.

“We use a color-coded tagging system that indicates the amount of grain each calf gets,” Greta explains. “We also provide fresh grain each time. Our post-weaned calves eat the dumped grain.”

They feed milk replacer, and recently began transitioning from bucket-feeding to nipple feeding, deeming this better for respiratory health and to keep intakes up.

Virginia does 90% of the feedings. When she is off, the herd health specialist takes over.

The weaning process is based on age and grain intake. At six weeks of age, milk feedings are cut by half.

“We usually see grain intake pick up greatly, increasing from 3 to 4 pounds per day to 5 to 6 pounds by the end of that week. Then the next week, we go to one quart of milk and they are at 8 pounds of grain. The next week we wean them,” Virginia relates. “Keeping them content from day-one, there is very little stress at weaning. The calves don’t seem to care.”

“The key to stress free weaning is the grain intake,” Greta observes, explaining that hay is not introduced to their calves until they are weaned and are consuming a minimum of 8 pounds of grain. “If we offer both, they’ll eat the hay first.”

Leaving the hay out of the equation until after weaning helps with grain intake for rumen development prior to weaning. The electrolytes also promote grain intake.

Calves are tape-weighed at birth and weaning to track ADG.

A key to making it all work, according to Greta, is the Slackbot app. It allows everyone in the group to see comments and messages directly related to the calf category. The app is searchable to see all messages and comments on any specific animal.

“We have wonderful employees who care about the cows and the calves, who are resilient and willing to work in our unorthodox situation,” says Greta, noting the privilege she and her family believe it is to be part of the dairy industry and to be stewards of the animals and the land while providing jobs for their employees.

“Our protocols are only as good as the people who implement them,” she adds, noting that birth to weaning is the least expensive time to manage cattle to avoid future expense. What might seem expensive on paper upfront saves money down the road.

“If we make a mistake at the start, we end up pouring money into an animal that we can never fix,” says Greta.

Asked what she would tell a fellow farmer to do first to improve calf management, Greta didn’t hesitate: “Perfect colostrum feeding. Spend as much time as you need to accomplish good quantity, high quality, in a timely manner, very simply. If we can’t do that every single time, nothing else will make a difference.”

 — By Sherry Bunting, portions previously published in Farmshine

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