Cattle are most vulnerable from birth to about 3 months old. Just after birth, their immune system is underdeveloped leaving them more susceptible to infectious agents. Further, this critical period can set the course of production for that animal’s life. Proper nutrition during this critical time can help ensure animal health and production performance in the future. Here are 5 keys to optimize calf nutrition.

1. Provide adequate colostrum

Colostrum is also known as the first milk. The first milk is the milk produced and let down within the first 24 hours after birth. It contains key immune factors known as immunoglobulins. Immunoglobulins are proteins that facilitate immunity and can be passed down to the calf through gut absorption. In addition to these critical immune factors, colostrum contains vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, fat, protein, and hormones that stimulate calf metabolism.

If a cow has rejected her calf, or is not allowing it to nurse, managers should provide commercially available colostrum supplements or replacers as early as possible. These supplements should be provided at 15% of the calf’s body weight. The efficacy of both natural colostrum and supplemental colostrum drops drastically after the first 20 hours of birth due to changes in the calf’s gut.

Calves that receive adequate colostrum early in life have been shown to be less likely to need treatment for Bovine Respiratory Disease Complex later in life.

2. Offer calf starter early

A high-quality calf starter should be offered early. This can help stimulate rumen microbe populations as well as rumen papillae development. Rumen papillae are finger-like projections on the inside of the rumen wall. They increase the surface area of the rumen chamber and play a role in feed utilization and nutrient absorption later in life.

Additionally, calves provided starter are less likely to develop calf scours. The key, however, is a high-quality calf starter. One of the main defining factors of a high-quality calf starter is the grain processing. While we do want to have some processing and mixing to ensure accessibility for the gut microbes and enzymes, if particles in the calf starter are too fine, then they can cause scours. Further, the crude protein concentration of the starter should not exceed 22%. High protein can also result in calf diarrhea. Starters should be highly palatable, low in fiber concentration, and no more than 7% fat.

3. Add forage to the diet

Once calves are consuming approximately 5 lbs of starter per day, then forage should be incorporated into the diet. The forage should be of moderate quality and offered without restriction. The protein should be less than 22%. Further, hay or pasture should be the form of the forage. Avoid fermented feedstuffs such as haylage or corn silage until the rumen has fully developed.

4. Provide fresh clean water

As with any animal, water is also a nutrient requirement for calves. They may not drink much prior to weaning, but allowing calves to play in the water and experiment will allow them to learn how to drink rather than suckling. Water is an essential often over looked part of calf nutrition, especially in the summer heat.

5. Account for environmental stressors

With spring calving, we often must deal with those last spring blizzards. When weather temperatures drop. Like any other livestock species, feed intake will increase. Calves will try to increase their heat of digestion to combat cold weather. This requires additional feed and specifically additional energy. Therefore, when cold temperatures hit, it is key to provide additional starter. The lower critical limit for calves is 59°F.

Conversely, calves are more resilient to heat stress than mature cattle. It is still good practice to provide shade and plenty of water on hot days.

In conclusion, proper calf nutrition management starts the day calves hit the ground. Providing adequate colostrum can have a positive impact on the calf’s immunity throughout its entire life. Calf starter should be incorporated early for proper rumen development. Forages should be offered once the calf is consuming adequate starter. Water should always be available for all animals, even those on a mostly liquid milk diet. Finally, feed management should take the environment into consideration even for young animals.

About the author

Rebecca earned her M.S. in Animal Nutrition from the University of Wyoming with a collaborative project with the US Meat Animal Research Center. She is an active member of the American Registry of Professional Animal Scientists. With a passion for producer education she is a regular contributor to Progressive Forage Magazine. Currently, she serves as the Immediate Past President of the NIRS Forage and Feed Testing Consortium (NIRSC).

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