This past week I was asked to necropsy a 1-week-old calf found dead. The owner had seen no evidence of sickness and the calf was with its mother all the time. The necropsy revealed an extremely emaciated body with no internal body fat present. The second client was a dairy client who was having trouble with calves dying between 1-2 weeks of age, with minimal clinical diarrhea or respiratory symptoms. While these cases are quite different, they got me to thinking about the reasons I see similar cases every year during this winter season.
A recent human nutritional epidemiological study described human disease in two distinct categories – “diseases of nutritional extravagance” and “diseases of nutritional inadequacy and poor sanitation.” Calf diseases clearly fall into the “nutritional inadequacy and poor sanitation” category. I see beef and dairy calves every day, and in far too many instances, the calves appear to be just maintaining or actually losing weight. This does seem to occur more frequently in dairy calves, and I think it has a great deal to do with how we have historically fed them.
Most dairy calves require far more calories than they receive, and this is especially true in colder weather. Calves have a thermo neutral zone of between 50 and 75 degrees F; more energy is required for body maintenance at temperatures either above or below this range. For example, an 80-pound Holstein calf requires 1,478 kilocalories for maintenance at 50 degrees. If the temperature drops to 20 degrees, that same calf requires 1,921 kilocalories, an increase of 30 percent. When you add wetness to the equation, the calories needed increase even more.
This does not take into account any energy needed for the calf to actually gain weight. If you set a goal for your calves to gain 1 pound per day until weaning, an additional 1,205 kilocalories is needed. There are some new feeding programs being promoted to accelerate growth in calves. Talk with your nutritionist and veterinarian to see if these programs would work for you.
So how do we provide the necessary calories? There are two choices – feed a higher energy milk replacer, or increase the amount of milk replacer fed. I recommend feeding no less than a 20/20 mixture (20 percent protein, 20 percent fat), and the replacer should be a milk-derived product, not a soy derived product. Cheap milk replacers are just that – CHEAP. Don’t spend dollars losing valuable calves by saving pennies on a less expensive milk replacer. For those of you who feed whole milk, there are many other considerations, which I may try to cover in another column. The second option, increasing the amount of milk replacer fed, must be accomplished by increasing the number of feedings, not the concentration of powder in water. Calves are creatures of consistency, and will perform better with less digestive problems if their milk replacer is the same consistency every feeding. Especially in cold weather, consider an additional feeding to meet extra caloric requirements.
Because beef calves are managed so differently, meeting caloric needs for them is much different. Of utmost importance is cow nutrition; cows in poor body condition fed Fescue stubble hay don’t produce as much milk. Secondly, calves in cold weather need dry shelter, either timber or extra bedding. Consider using better quality hay for feed and the Fescue stubble for bedding. A third factor is udder disease in cows; past or current cases of mastitis causing blind quarters lead to a significant decrease in milk production for the calf.
Not only does feeding calves properly result in larger, faster growing calves, disease is significantly reduced. Those extra calories also are feeding a developing immune system. Multiple studies and anecdotal reports confirm that calves eating more calories are more resistant to diarrhea and pneumonia. That extra money spent on quality feed is often more than offset by decreased treatment costs and death loss. And that means more in the plus column at the end of the year.
Dr. Mike Bloss, DVM, owns and operates Countryside Animal Clinic, with his wife, Kristin Bloss, DVM. The mixed animal practice is located in Aurora, Mo.

OFN Site ManagerOn-Call / VetMissouri,On CallThis past week I was asked to necropsy a 1-week-old calf found dead. The owner had seen no evidence of sickness and the calf was with its mother all the time. The necropsy revealed an extremely emaciated body with no internal body fat present. The second client was...The Ozarks' most read farm newspaper, reaching more than 58,000 readers in Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma