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Is Accelerated Dairy Calf Feed the New Normal?

Boosting production across New York
By Tina Wright


PHOTOS BY TINA WRIGHT, UNLESS OTHERWISE NOTED.
Greenhouse calves at Oakwood Dairy near Auburn, N.Y.

Bonnie and Allen Baker have been feeding their pre-weaned calves on an accelerated system since 1998. They were early adapters to a calf-feeding idea that was new at the time.

The Bakers had heard Cornell University’s Michael Van Amburgh speak about accelerated calf-feeding and took his directions to heart. They used a good quality milk replacer that was 28 percent protein and 15 percent fat (conventional milk replacers were 20/20 at the time). Calves were quickly drinking a gallon of milk replacer twice a day. By following the milk with warm water, they could drink a few quarts of water, too. The calves grew fast and were healthy and aggressive.

Bonnie had heard other dairy farmers complain that the system didn’t work for them, often because they used cheap milk replacers, didn’t offer water free choice to calves or doubled up on the old-style milk replacers instead of the higher protein-to-fat ratio replacers needed for feed efficiency. It’s not a one-size-fits-all system. Jersey calves, for example, may need a higher fat percentage in milk replacer; smaller calves may be slow to get to a gallon per feeding; and, some big breed calves hit 5 quarts twice a day at their peak before weaning.

Van Amburgh, associate professor of animal science, still hears some complaining about the high cost of raising dairy calves the right way, but he cites research proving the importance of excellent nutrition for the pre-weaned calf. The latest research analysis within its herd was shocking. Van Amburgh said, “Growth weight to weaning, growth weight to 60 days accounted for 25 percent of the variation of the first lactation milk production.” They expect this advantage to be a lifetime effect of increased production in dairy cows, much to the amazement of the geneticists in dairy science.

On his university Web profile, the Cornell researcher states, “This is a significant finding and one that provides us with a new direction and with profound implications for early life management of calves and heifers.” In addition to Cornell’s work in calf nutrition, other academic researchers who have helped develop these new feeding strategies are Michael Hutgens and Jim Drakeley at the University of Illinois.

Drop bST, feed calves better instead

Is accelerated calf feeding the new norm? Van Amburgh says, “I don’t know if it’s the new normal, but I think it is getting that way. I think there’s still an issue where we are still focused on low cost. My way of dealing with that, especially since we have all these fights with somatotropin [bST], my way of dealing with that publicly is to say, ‘OK, if we can’t use somatotropin we’ve got to have other ways of finding this milk.’”

Research proves that good calf feeding can add 1,800 pounds of milk to a cow’s first lactation. Van Amburgh says, “So, we’re picking up a somatotropin response without using somatotropin by feeding a calf better.”

Land O’Lakes, the large Midwestern cooperative, has a major animal milk products division. Van Amburgh is careful to mention that there are other good products made by many companies, but Land O’Lakes has been in on accelerated calf-feeding from the start with many milk replacers and they sponsor a number of programs for dairy farmers.

Organic dairy farmers and even some CAFO-sized farms are feeding whole milk to calves, getting them up to a full gallon twice a day; you might call it accelerated natural feeding, sometimes pasteurized. At Twin Oaks Farm, a 115-cow dairy in Truxton, N.Y., new calves quickly join a mob-feeding group on their own pasture. Calves are each fed 1 gallon of milk twice a day in a mob feeder. Gradually weaned at eight weeks with a little free-choice grain, calves start eating grass even earlier.

PHOTO COURTESY OF SUSAN DUBREUIL.
Kathie Arnold of Twin Oaks Farm in Truxton, N.Y., with a mob-feeder to feed milk to pasture calves.

Mob-feeders multiplying

Mob-feeders, barrels with multiple nipples that can feed a group of calves, are getting popular, and Van Amburgh cites the research of Neil Anderson of the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. However, the modern dairy veterinarian is not hip to mob feeders. Van Amburgh said, “I actually talked to a group of Mennonite dairymen a couple of weeks ago; their vets were really against mob-feeders.” The dairymen said that the vets hated group mob-feeding, but they were raising the best calves ever that way.

The American dairy industry, especially the large-scale component, believes that pre-weaned calves should be isolated from each other. Van Amburgh disagrees, “I think that’s our next big trick, to get the veterinarians to relinquish some of that [phobia] about nose-to-nose contact and touching each other. Because quite frankly, I’ve been around the world a few times now, literally, and the rest of the world is using group feeding pens and they’re using automated feeders and they’re working incredibly well.”

Some organic and biodynamic dairy farms are even raising young calves in the pasture with their mothers. Again, orthodox thinking is that the threat of Johne’s disease dictates separation of calf and cow. Organic dairy farmers Rob and Pam Moore in Nichols, N.Y., swear by their calves’ health since adopting this system.

Water is often overlooked in raising calves. How important is it to calves? Van Amburgh answers, “Same as it’s always been, they’re 70 percent water. It’s stuff like that that is still a problem. We still have a lot of herds that don’t feed free choice water. In the winter especially, we come back and feed them warm water right after we’re done. They’ll drink another half a bucket.” Good feeding does not make up for unsanitary calving conditions, inadequate colostrum feeding at birth, wet bedding or poor ventilation.

Works for everyone

The beauty of “the new normal” calf feeding is that the principle applies to all size dairy farms, whether a 1,000-cow free stall herd with calves in a greenhouse or a 50-cow grazing dairy. Every calf needs the nutrition to double its weight by 60 days and weaning. All newborn calves need 3 to 4 quarts of good colostrum immediately after birth to give them the immunity they need. This, too, gives a calf a lifetime advantage. Every study seems to make colostrum even more important.

When talking to farmers, Van Amburgh isn’t afraid to use these numbers to make a point. “I can walk through the farm now,” he says, “I can say colostrum looks like it might be worth at least 1,000 pounds of milk in the first lactation. And, colostrum and feeding can be worth up to 3,000 pounds of milk in the first lactation. So, you guys better get on it.”

Just a few years back, we thought that giving a baby calf more than 2 quarts of milk replacer or milk was a recipe for a health disaster. Now we know we were being penny-wise and pound-foolish. It’s a new mind set that results in more naturally productive dairy cows.

The author is a freelance contributor based in Brooktondale, N.Y.