Seasonality & optimal calf care

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Courtesy of Grober Nutrition USA

Changing seasons, and challenging seasonal extremes (cold, heat and humidity), add extra challenges for a young calf and the caregivers management must be dynamic in order to provide optimal care. A reminder of calf needs should be outlined, especially with the primary calf worker(s). Topics of focus should involve: Optimal nutrition, the importance of access to clean water, clean and dry resting area, calf observation for health, ventilation, and determining what the practical and effective management protocols needed to maximize a calf’s potential.

Here are some benchmarks and fast tips to improve both the calf and caregiver environment along the road to better calves.

Location and Building Materials – disease control

Hutches are best placed up wind from older animals, with the doors facing away from prevailing winds. Hog panels or gating around hutches, as opposed to calf collars, allow the calf more mobility and the option to find the most comfortable environment. Spacing calf hutches apart from each other so that calves cannot touch nose to nose when outside is ideal. This is especially important in times of high pneumonia pressure typical with temperature fluctuations and high humidity. Hutches placed on concrete hold more moisture in wet weather and heat up faster, and hotter in hot spells. Gravel allows more moisture to flow away from the calves and this ground moisture better regulates heat fluctuations. In calf barns, coating concrete with glossy epoxy allows for easy cleaning and disinfecting.  Clear siding allows sunlight to heat up the inside of a calf barn, although this increases the need for air turn over.

Ventilation – draft-free fresh air

Fresh air turn over in a calf barn should be determined based on the model that provides the highest levels of airflow, whether it be ft/min, by area or by head. Variable speed fans and automatically running curtains are most sensitive to these slight changes in ambient temperature. Calf barns can be ventilated naturally, mechanically, or both. With natural curtain ventilation, ensure a curtain that can block precipitation is functioning.

Look at where calves tend to rest, this will guide you in your management of the environment. Vents on calf hutches should be monitored as seasons change. Reflective paint or sheets will deflect heat off the hutch and putting blocks under the back to allow air to move underneath in extreme heat. Screens can be put in the windows and doors of calf hutches to stop snow from blowing in without blocking airflow.

Spend time in various spots in the calf barn at calf level: Check for areas with a higher ammonia, dead air spots, excess draft and condensation. Changes in ventilation management will change with the climate, stocking density and age of animals. Consult a ventilation specialist knowledgeable in your type of ventilation system to fine tune it for the particular season you are entering or if specific problems persist. In addition, consider getting your barn fogged each season for the first year. This will help to show the strengths and weaknesses of the calf environment and is an important step in remedying them.

Bedding – comfortable, clean, dry resting area

Shavings, sand and manure pack are all better suited to hot weather bedding. Shavings are very absorbent but must be freshened often, especially with humid weather or periods of high precipitation. Whatever the choice of bedding, deep bedding provides a barrier between calves and moisture.  Dry bedding is extremely important with weather fluctuations in spring and fall and must be monitored closely in times of high humidity and precipitation.   Sand, shavings, straw and dried manure pack can all provide quality bedding for calves in winter. Straw is a winter friendly choice with high nesting properties, which helps to maintain a calf’s critical temperature during cold spells. Providing deep straw bedding calves under three weeks of age is highly recommended for this reason. Consider using bales of straw as ‘leaning posts’ for group housed calves. Line concrete walls with small squares so that calves can lay against straw instead of cold concrete, or use as windbreaks in front of doors or between pens.

Nutrition and Water

The pre-ruminant phase is the most efficient stage of growth. Maximize their growth by ensuring your milk replacer is meeting their dietary requirements, which may change with climate highs and lows. In winter when metabolism is increased, higher calorie intake and source is notable. Selecting a higher fat milk replacer and slightly increase the amount provided. In hot weather, high fat is not necessary and selecting a low fat milk replacer is more economical. No matter the weather, consistent feeding temperature, powder concentration volumes fed, and high quality digestible ingredients will maximize the efficiency of your feeding program.

Always remember water – fresh, clean water.  Water drives starter intake and encourages rumen development.  Water provision through milk replacer or whole milk is NOT enough, especially during health challenges and/or warm temperatures. Water requirements for a calf increase rapidly, especially when the calf begins to consume solid feed.

Follow up your calf nutrition program by keeping milk buckets, bottles, nipples, and automatic feeders (nipple, feeding line, mixing jar, powder dispensing spout) cleaned and inspected after each feeding.

Labour – efficiency and careful observation

Raising pre-weaned calves is labour-intensive and requires a keen eye. Make the calf set-up as labour friendly and efficient as possible without sacrificing calf health. Detailed and well policed protocols that are tailored to the seasons are essential. Clear, consistent instructions will give confidence and efficiency to your calf team.  Take care of your staff, consider tools and layouts that will mitigate repetitive strain or heavy labour induced injuries. Little changes that can make the environment more comfortable to work in will encourage time spent fulfilling calf needs and adherence to protocol. Such things as an overhang above outdoor calf hutches allows the caregiver some protection from the elements when feeding and observing calves. Swing gates and 6 inch curbs in group pens allow for easier cleaning. Store some bedding close to calf areas so it will be used more often.

Small changes to your calf barn/hutches and management protocols should change with the seasons. For instance scheduling more calf observation time during spring and fall for pneumonia outbreaks.  Keep a health record for each calf to better track seasonal health challenges to maximize your calf health program with your veterinarian. Careful observation and fast, tactful response is the name of the calf game. Make sure you have a dedicated calf caregiver who will accommodate seasonal management changes and continue to strive for growth and health targets.

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