Ag Notes: Start baby calves off on the right foot

December 15, 2004|JERRY LITTLE

Heifers are the future milk-production units of a dairy farm. To protect your investment in the future, manage and feed heifers to grow economically and at the optimum rate of calve at two years of age. The first two months after birth are critical to achieving these objectives.

The keys to starting calves off on the right foot are to hand-feed colostrum as soon as possible after birth; start feeding calf starter and free-choice water at four days of age; wait to feed hay until calves are eight weeks old or weaned and are eating four to six pounds of grain; and feed weaned calves enough protein and other nutrients for proper skeletal and muscular growth.

Calves are born with little defense or immunity against disease. They acquire resistance through timely and adequate intake of high-quality colostrum in the mother's first milk. It is common to let the calf nurse its mother. However, research shows that many calves do not nurse adequate amounts of colostrum in the first hours of life to provide the immunity necessary to fight off disease.


Holstein calves should be hand-fed three quarts of colostrum as soon as possible after birth, but within four to six hours of life so they can absorb the antibodies.

After four days of age, baby calves should be fed either whole milk, waste milk or milk replacer twice a day from a nipple bottle or bucket. They also should be fed calf starter or grain and water free choice. Starter and water, fed separately from the milk, are necessary to convert the baby calf from a simple-stomach animal into one that can utilize forages.

Feeding calves free-choice water increases starter intake and weight gain. A research study showed that calves given water free choice and separately from milk gained almost 40 percent more than those not given free-choice water.

Holstein calves should not be fed hay until after weaning or eight weeks of age. Calves should be eating four to six pounds of grain before adding hay to the diet.

Calves can be weaned off milk when they are eating two pounds of starter for three consecutive days. Remember, calves should be weaned based on starter intake and not age. Some can be weaned at four weeks, whereas others may be 10 weeks old.

Starter or grain intake will rapidly increase after weaning to compensate for lost nutrients the milk had provided. To minimize competition for feed, heifers from two to four months old should be put into small groups of four to six animals. They hay-grain mix should provide adequate amounts of protein and other nutrients for skeletal and muscular growth. As a result, the grain mix may need to contain 16 to 18 percent crude protein and should not contain urea.

For more information, contact the Boyle County Cooperative Extension Service.

This week's chuckle

"When I was a child," said the young man to his date, "my mom always used to say to me that if I made an ugly face it would stay that way."

"Well," said the bored girl, "one thing is for sure, you certainly can't say you weren't warned."

Jerry Little is county extension agent for Agriculture/Natural Resources.

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