Any successful dairy farmer will tell you that good calf management practices have been proven to maximize calf health and reduce vet costs.
A 5-day Calf Management Training program sponsored by the Central New York Cornell Cooperative Extension Dairy and Field Crops Team, explained the fine tuning points of those practices. The training program culminated with a farm walk and hands-on demonstration at Dykeman Dairy in Fultonville, NY.
Josh Kilmartin has been working at Dykeman Dairy for nearly 25 years and has been in the position of calf manager for many of those years.
“As the farm got bigger, the calves became my main focus,” Kilmartin explained. Dykeman Dairy produced about 700 calves this year.
Kilmartin’s daughter Breona has been working with him for 8 years, helping to care for the calves, first calf heifers and dry cows.
Attendees toured the barns where dry cows are kept in groups according to their expected calving dates, closer up cows are kept in groups closer to the maternity pens. First calf heifers are kept in groups separate from the older cows. “This way they’ve got it a little easier, they’re not competing with the mature cows.”
Kilmartin says the goal is to check the “up close cows” hourly throughout the day. At night the cows are monitored by a hired man. “We have very few problems at night.”
New calves are handled with strict protocol. Each calf born has a documented record sheet that Kilmartin designed to fit his program. All information is written down from the time the calf is born. Each calf receives a Calf Guard vaccine, even though the cows are all vaccinated.
“We consider all manure to be lethal and our goal is to keep all pens as clean as we can and get the calf away from the mom as quick as we can.” However, the cows are allowed to lick the calves to dry and stimulate them.
Colostrum is harvested on the farm from the fresh cows with a clean vacuum pump and a sterilized pail, then transferred to sterile bottles, which are kept in an old milk vending machine that Kilmartin has turned into a colostrum refrigerator. About 60 bottles are on hand at all times. Bottles of colostrum are heated in water at about 140 degrees for about 45 minutes before feeding.
“Our water will go up to 180 degrees, but we don’t want to de-nature that protein in the colostrum, so you don’t want the water temperature any higher than about 140 to150.”
About 95 percent of the new calves are tube fed. “It’s a fight to get those calves to suck that nipple a lot of times, so we just tube them. It’s just a matter of getting it in them and that’s a sure thing.”
Heifer calves are fed one gallon of colostrum at the initial feeding. Kilmartin says sometimes the calves will skip up to two feedings after receiving the first gallon of colostrum, but he doesn’t fight with them. Patience wins out and by the third feeding every calf is ready to eat. “After the initial tube feeding the calf will never see another tube feeding on this farm.”
Kilmartin described congestion frequently seen in new calves that results from ingesting birth fluids. “We give them a shot of ‘Predef’,” he said. “We don’t see any problem after that.”
The farm has not used any electrolytes for the past 8 years. “Prior to that the only reason we used electrolytes was to supplement some salts in the milk replacer in the summertime. We don’t use electrolytes on the farm. We don’t let the calves get to that point.”
After the new born calf receives colostrum, it receives StressMate. “We’ve been using StressMate for a little over a year with outstanding success.” Each calf receives three doses, first at birth, then at the next two feeding attempts.
Enforce 3 is also used, along with a bovine equalizer, MU-Se, and then the navel is dipped again.
Once this routine has been completed the calf is tagged and all of the procedures are documented on the record sheet. Kilmartin says the record sheet is a good feature to use and advises using them, although other farms would want one customized for their own use.
Kilmartin remarked the vaccine protocol he uses with his calves may not be what is best for a smaller herd, where there is a smaller pathogen load and less opportunity for calves to get infected. “We use these things as tools. When a problem comes up, we pull the tool off the shelf and use it.”
One of the tools he uses is ‘Encrypt’, which has been proven to reduce Cryptosporidium in cows. Although he acknowledges that it is expensive, Kilmartin and other dairy farmers at the meeting agree that it is well worth the price. “It’s a tool you use when you need to, because once you allow Crypto to set up, you know what else is coming. You know E. Coli is coming. Crypto runs down the calf’s immune system, so all of those other things follow.”
Kilmartin says with calf-raising many things don’t respond to drugs and it just comes down to good management practices.
“We need to be alert to the things in our environment. Keep the cows vaccinated properly. Vaccinate at the right time, so it’s in the colostrum.”
“How are we managing our calves?” he asked. “Are we paying attention to the basics? Are we using clean utensils? Are we cleaning things properly? Are we getting them clean food to start with? That colostrum — or if you’re using a synthetic product — are we feeding that clean? That’s the biggest thing that we’ve seen on this farm. It’s the simple things that we sometimes overlook.”
“It’s refreshing to see the interest people have in raising healthy calves,” remarked Dave Balbian, CNY CCE Dairy Specialist, coordinator of the Calf Management meeting. “Calves are your future dairy herd. More and more research is showing that the healthier they are when they are newborns and early on in life, the more productive they are later in life, both in milk production and reproductive efficiency.”
Balbian compares newborn calves with newborn human infants. “The fact is, these calves are infant bovines. They are babies and we need to be sure their environment and especially all the feeding equipment we use is as clean as we would want it to be for our own infant children. We assure that everything is super clean when we are feeding an infant, we need to have the same diligence when feeding calves.”
For more information on calf management contact Dave Balbian at 518-312-3592.