Over the past few months, I have had the good fortune to discuss pre-weaned dairy calf management with several hundred dairy farmers. It is always good to listen to farmers discuss their experiences of trying to implement all the recommendations about how they should deal with new-born calves. On actual dairy farms, it can be a little difficult to make a balance between what you ‘should do’ and what you ‘can do.’
Virtually everybody was mindful of the fact that calves needed to get enough colostrum as soon as practically possible after they are born. Ideally, the colostrum should be as clean as possible too. That means colostrum is collected after proper prep of the udder into a clean system and then administered using a clean bottle or clean tube feeder. Sounds easy enough, but none of that might be convenient. Sometimes people want to figure out how much they can compromise on the clean rule. That is hard to know, so I try to emphasize that farmers pay attention to general cleanliness but pay special attention to the cleanliness of things like tube feeders that will likely end up being used on many calves. If those things are not cleaned regularly, it could cause problems in more than one calf.
Along the same philosophy of being careful with management practices that impact larger number of calves, I emphasize paying close attention to nutrition. I often ask groups of farmers if they feed replacer or milk. Then I ask, “Of those who feed replacer, have you read the label in the last six months?” It is common that not many have read the label, even if they have changed the brand of milk replacer they are using. It is surprising how different the instructions can be, let alone how different milk replacers are in how much a ‘scoop’ weighs.
Checking on milk replacer is equally important to farmers who use automatic calf feeders. An American expert recently told me that calf feeder performance is influenced by the fluidity of the milk replacer powder. That makes sense but is easy to overlook.
Many farmers had BRIX meters that they use to check the quality of colostrum. The same meter can be used to check to see if water has been inadvertently added to milk. It can be used to check milk replacer too. You can use it to monitor the consistency of fixing milk replacer either with manual mixing or from an automatic feeder. Inconsistent mixing can not only shortchange calves on nutrition, it can lead to digestive upsets too. To determine the proper BRIX for a milk replacer you need to mix the replacer using the manufacturer’s instructions (weighing powder and measuring water), then measure the BRIX. That value becomes the target BRIX.
The BRIX meter can be used to check if calves got enough colostrum too. You need to test serum, not blood. In other words, you need to get a sample of blood, let it clot and test the clear, straw-coloured liquid that separates from the clot. Not really convenient, but a good test if you are dealing with lots of calves. The target is to get a BRIX reading of 8.4 % or more. A recent research trial showed that the BRIX should be pretty reliable until the calf is about nine days old.
Dr. Robert Tremblay is a veterinarian for Boehringer-Ingelheim and lives near Guelph.