Caring for high value bull calves

Have your standards for bull calf care risen with the prices paid for them? Economics aside, proper care is imperative from an ethical standpoint.

How well do you treat newborn bull calves? It may be that habits which get ingrained under one set of conditions persist even when conditions change.

Recently, I had conversations with dairy producers who recall with wonder the days when sending bull calves to the auction brought a price so low that sometimes it only barely or even didn’t cover the commission for selling them. One producer still had the check amounting to less than $2 he received more than 10 years ago for sending three bull calves to market.

Maybe it was in days like that where some dairy producers got in the habit of skimping on care for newborn bull calves including feeding less colostrum, feeding lower quality colostrum and not dipping navels.

Times have changed from those low price calf days. Now bull calves are often bringing more than $250 at auction. Times have changed, have you?

Dairy bull calves are a valued resource for beef production because of the limited beef cattle inventory. Buyers will reward dairy producers who sell calves that will be more likely to grow well and stay healthy.

Therefore, it is in the best financial interests of dairy producers to make sure that they provide the kind of care that will set these animals up to be profitable for buyers.

For newborn calves, heifer or bulls, Michigan State University Extension recommends:

  • 4 quarts of colostrum fed to the calf within 1 hour of birth.
  • Colostrum from a cow milked within 1 hour of giving birth.
  • Colostrum quality measured and only colostrum with greater than 20 mg./ml. (yellow on a colostrometer) used for first and second feedings.
  • Second feeding of 2 quarts of colostrum 10-12 hours after birth.
  • Navels dipped within 1 hour of birth with 7 percent iodine solution or other solution proven as effective.

The reason for these recommendations is that they increase the calves’ defense against potential challenges to their health. Some calves may appear fine with less colostrum, lower quality colostrum or colostrum fed later, however, the research shows that best health is consistently obtained by following these recommendations.

When practices fail to meet these standards, calves may be appear healthy on the day they are sent to the auction, but the impact of those practices will be realized in the days, weeks and months after they leave the farm. Calves that are better protected will likely have fewer health problems and decreased costs. Buyers recognize that and are willing to pay a premium for healthier calves.

That is the economical argument for providing quality care for bull calves. But there is also an ethical argument that first as a steward of the calves born on your farm, you have a responsibility to treat them well. Secondly, as a seller of a product, you have an ethical responsibility to make sure that it is a satisfying purchase. Those arguments will hold true whether bull calves are worth record high or low dollar values.

So maybe it is time to review the care standards and practices that you and your employees provide for all calves, whether they are male or female. You may find that setting a higher standard for bull calves communicates to your employee the value of all animals on your farm. That message has a higher value than the saleyard check.

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