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Solutions for hot feed prices and cold nursery calves

Noah Litherland, Dairy Nutritionist

Published in Dairy Star January 21, 2011

Two hot issues on the minds of dairy producers at the beginning of 2011 are feed commodity prices and keeping calves healthy and growing during cold winter months. Those purchasing off the farm commodities are certainly feeling the financial pinch, and those who are feeding calves in hutches outside are probably getting tired of walking through the snow while doing chores. On the bright side, we have high quality commodities available to us and I'll take snow over mud any day. After talking with several producers and nutritionists, I have summarized a list of solutions to address these two challenges.

Solutions for hot feed prices:

  1. Consider alternative protein sources. Meat and bone meal is a good buy and fits well into most diets to meet amino acid requirements. Balancing amino acids in the lactation diet helps trim excess crude protein from the diet.
  2. Use Sesame (Ohio State) or Feed Val (University of Wisconsin) to accurately place a value on feeds and determine which commodities are a good buy based on the nutrients they offer.
  3. Consider precision feeding of starch. Evaluating the source, digestibility and rate of rumen availability of starch in the diet may help determine if starch can be trimmed while maintaining milk yield. Feeding a blend of high moisture corn and dry ground corn may add balance to the timing of ruminal starch digestion.
  4. Use inventory management to predict how long an ingredient will be available to feed and then make adjustments accordingly. If it's projected you will run short, consider reducing the rate of consumption to extend the feed ingredient, purchasing more of that feed, substituting an existing feed ingredient into the ration, or a combination of these choices.
  5. If you are feeding a moderate energy wheat straw diet to dry cows, consider replacing some or all of the straw with good quality low potassium grass hay. Wheat straw is considered the gold standard ingredient for dry cow diets due to its low energy, good palatability and consistency. Grass hay can work equally well and adds higher protein, digestible fiber, and energy compared with wheat straw. In research conducted at the University of Minnesota, cows fed equally balanced diets containing either 30% chopped grass hay or wheat straw during the dry period performed similarly after calving. Using current prices, the decision to use grass hay over wheat straw and replacing 2.3 pounds of corn and 48% SBM with corn silage would save $0.25 per cow per day (see table).
  6. Invest in a technology update for your feeding system. New technology can track inventory, evaluate feeding and mixing consistency, measure and adjust for ingredient dry matter, and provide field maps of forage yield.

Solutions for cold calves:

  1. Bedding - Add at least one bale of straw to each hutch initially and add more daily or every other day to provide insulation for calves. Wisconsin nest scoring system is useful for determining when to add straw. Nesting score: 1 = Calf lies on top of bedding with legs exposed; 2 = Nestled slightly into bedding, but part of legs are visible; 3 = Nestled deeply into bedding so that legs are not visible.
  2. Provide added nutrients - Add an extra feeding of milk or milk replacer during the middle of the day during cold weather to provide additional nutrients to calves in thermal stress. Adding up to 40% additional total volume of milk replacer per day may be warranted in extremely cold conditions. When feeding powder at higher mixing rates, do not reconstitute milk replacer in excess of 17% total solids.
  3. Consider using accelerated feeding programs when temperatures are above the calf's thermo-neutral zone. University of Minnesota studies indicate that under cold stress conditions, calves may not respond as anticipated to high protein milk replacer programs if protein is not the first limiting nutrient for growth. This is especially true during cold stress when energy is likely first limiting.
  4. Ensure that fresh starter is available to all calves by one week of age. Bucket opening height should be no greater than 24 inches off the ground.
  5. Cold stressed calves are generally less active making it difficult to observe calf health including fecal scores, respiratory problems and body condition. Be sure to observe calves while they are standing in order to gain a holistic picture of their health.
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