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10 New Ways to Help Your Calves Thrive


A new year opens the door to new opportunities for your young animal program.

10 New Ways to Help Your Calves Thrive


A new year opens the door to new opportunities for your young animal program.

Only a month into a new year, and it’s not too late to make a resolution to improve your calf and heifer program. Replacement heifers account for 25 percent of a dairy’s costs, but that investment can vary significantly based on the efficiency of your nutrition program and the number of heifers on your dairy. Cargill works with producers across the country to develop growth system plans for young animal management to optimize cost per pound of gain and lifetime milk production. Here’s a few places we recommend starting for your own young animal plan. 

Find your best age at first calving 

Traditional benchmarks have suggested that 24 months was an appropriate target for age at first calving (AFC), while more recent experts have pushed that goal down as low as 20 months. The correct AFC is the one that best suits your cows, not industry averages. Examine calf and heifer growth results and lactation data across heifers that calve at 21, 22, 23, 24, and 25 months of age in your herd. The findings may surprise you, and will help you find the sweet spot on your dairy for an AFC goal. 

Make a plan 

Once you know your optimum AFC, build a desired growth curve for height and weight goals to reach the AFC. Heifers should calve at 95% of mature bodyweight, so using average birth weight and the goal AFC you have, set goals for height and weight at key stages of development such as 300, 500, 700, 1,100 pounds of body weight. 

Find the bottlenecks 

Heights and weights should be measured at the key stages on your growth curve and plotted on a chart to see how the calf and heifer program is doing. Track to make sure growth results are not over or under the goals. This is helpful in identifying any bottlenecks in your program. In addition, understand your costs and cost per pound of gain as much as possible, too, to find efficiencies. 

Feed only the heifers you need 

Feeding too many heifers can be a significant profit drain on a dairy. How do you know if you have too many? A herd calving at 23 months with a 30% cull rate needs 63 heifers per 100 cows to maintain herd size. Change calving age to 24 months, and cull rate to 40%, and the same herd needs 88 heifers per 100 cows. A table is available here to help you find your sweet spot. You might not even want to breed every open cow. In today’s market, any extra heifers should be sold as early in life as possible. 

Focus on early intake 

A successful weaning starts within the first week of a calf’s life. We know from research that a calf need to be eating about 0.25 to 0.5 pound of starter a day to start a 21-day clock in which the rumen will fully develop. HerdFirst® features a distinctive palatability-enhancing flavoring to entice intake in calves as young as two days of age. Our carbohydrate balancing also favors higher intake. Encouraging starter intake with only a few handfuls of feed can be time consuming, but the hard work will pay off. 

Be careful about feeding so much milk 

Calves that are fed too much milk don’t consume the dry feeds necessary to properly develop the rumen. In fact, an analysis done by Penn State found that for each 0.5 pound more milk or milk replacer fed a day (dry matter basis), calves ate about 0.33 pound of starter. Be sure to fit the liquid feeding program to your goals for weaning age, daily gain, and cost per pound of gain to. For farms feeding more than two pounds of solids per day of milk or milk replacer, extra care needs to be taken to make sure calves are eating plenty of starter before they are weaned. 

Don’t waste protein 

Everyone knows that amino acids are the building blocks of protein, but when it comes to calf nutrition programs, we’ve been slow to pay attention to them. HerdFirst makes the bold statement that amino acid ratio, not protein percentages, are what drive growth. An ideal amino acid ratio means that lysine, methionine and threonine are balanced to prevent them from limiting the utilization of protein for growth. The result is that the calf is able to use the protein for muscle and frame growth, rather than losing it in her urine and manure. 

Make the rumen and gut happy 

In developing HerdFirst, Cargill went beyond the basics and into the health of the gut to evaluate what really stimulates rumen development. A healthy lower gut can reduce the risk of scours and maximize utilization efficiency of the nutrients you feed. Cargill tested this technology, called GutXpert advanced nutrition, in calves less than 42 days of age at our Elk River research facility, and found that GutXpert helped improve feed intake and average daily gain when fed with one pound of milk replacer per head per day. 

Meet heifer mineral and vitamin needs 

Trace minerals and vitamins are important to growing heifers. Maintaining appropriate levels can impact feed efficiency, hoof development, reproduction, and immune system integrity. Deficiencies will not immediately impact growth, but can show up as poor reproductive performance or impaired health. At a minimal investment, don’t shortchange these important growth factors. 

Don’t overcrowd 

Cows begin to experience the negative effects of overcrowding at 120 percent stocking density, and it’s reasonable to assume calves would as well. Shortages of feed bunk or waterer space contribute to aggressive behavior and uneven body condition. The dominant heifers may become over conditioned while the more timid ones will often fall short of their nutrient needs. Both underweight and overweight heifers can be a challenge to breed. Overcrowding will strain facilities, air quality, and management, making pens harder to keep clean. 

If you’re ready for some help with your calf and heifer game plan, let a Cargill consultant take a look at where you are and design a Herd First program with an end in mind around your goals.

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