If you're trying to uncover the trick to raising dairy calves with a less than 1% death loss, you might be surprised to hear what Barb and Bruce Ashenbrenner have to say.
They haven't relied on any tricks to achieve that enviable statistic at their Western Oregon calf-raising operation. They've simply followed the simple, basic rules of raising calves… consistently.
And it's paid off for them. Three years and 1,600 calves after they began raising Holstein heifer calves on contract for nearby Van Beek Dairy, Barb -- the head calf raiser -- has lost only 15 calves. For her, sticking to a carefully thought-out routine for feeding, health and maintenance has produced these outstanding results.
"If you don't do things routinely, they don't get done." Bruce says.
The routine begins even before the Ashenbrenners bring the calves the short distance from Van Beck Dairy to their home. When they see a newborn, employees at the dairy dip its navel, tag it, treat it with CalfGuard and give it one feeding of LifeLine, a natural product derived from bovine blood that is a highly concentrated source of immunoglobulins. The goal is to get the mixture into the calf as soon as possible when stomach absorption is at its peak. The longer the wait, the lower the absorption capacity.
"This is so basic, but so important, to get the calf through the first 7 - 14 days," Bruce said. "Everything we're trying to do right can be lost if the calf is not cared for in those critical first hours."
It's important for a calf-raiser to establish a good relationship with a dairy, so win-win programs like early feeding can be created, the Ashenbrenners say. And they point out they are fortunate to work with a progressive dairy family like the Van Beeks.
The Ashenbrenners pick up calves and milk from transition cows once a day. Before the calves get in the van to head for the calf facility, Barb gives them a selenium shot. Once again, sticking with a routine ensures nothing is missed. She pumps the transition milk into a barrel, then into another barrel once she's at home. In the summer, it's stored in a cooler.
New calves stay in a well-ventilated barn for three to seven days so the Ashenbrenners can make sure they're drinking from bottles before they're moved into PolyDome plastic huts outdoors. The first night they arrive, they check and re-dip the calves' navels and give them a half-bottle of LifeLine mixed with a half-bottle of milk replacer. That first night, "we're not afraid to tube if they don't drink," Barb says. She keeps close tabs and accurate records on the new arrivals. Once a group is drinking and ready to be moved, they clean and treat the barn with lime.
Calves stay on milk replacer for 30 days. Firm believers in consistency, the Ashenbrenners don't feed transition milk to calves less than one month old, since its nutrient content can vary. Once the calves have a good start, they feel they'll handle the varied milk better. The Ashenbrenners don't feed milk from treated cows at all, since they want to build natural bacteria flora in the calves' stomach as much as possible.
The milk replacer used by the Ashenbrenners is American Protein's 20/20 all-milk nonmedicated with plasma, and APC Choice 20/20 nonmedicated red blood cell with plasma.
They mix milk replacer with water of a consistent temperature. Instead of measuring the powder with a cup they weigh it out -- again for better consistency. "You get a more accurate measurement with a scale than you do with a cup." Says Barb. To mix it more thoroughly they took the extra step of buying a wire whisk like those used in commercial kitchens. Their reasoning: It's a cheap investment that calves milk will benefit from.
"The simple things make all the difference," says Bruce.
Barb and children, Shiann, 11, and Stuart, 9, feed the 75 - 95 calves on milk. They keep calves on bottles for three reasons: The plastic huts (which they've found work well in Western Oregon's coastal climate) are set up for bottle feeling; it's easy to control cleanliness; and it's easy to spot calves that aren't drinking when they are fed with bottles. They've even found that calves feeling under-the-weather will suckle a bottle before drinking from a bucket.
Immediately after each feeding, Barb, Shiann and Stuart clean and disinfect all feeding equipment. They scrub the bottles with soap, bleach and hot water.
Calves on milk get as much water as they can drink and plenty of grain. For the Ashenbrenners, no calf is too young to be offered water and feeding it helps ward off dehydration.
"We are big believers in feeding water." Barb said. "It is amazing how much water those baby calves will consume. We also know that with water available, grain consumption increases.
When calves are weaned at 45 days they are eating 6 - 8 pounds of 16% protein grain containing a coccidiostat, and are introduced to alfalfa hay at that time. When they are 75 - 110 days old they're ready to go back to the dairy.
On weekends when Bruce is home from his full-time job, they move the calves and take care of other chores like dehorning, which they do with a portable butane dehorner. They may also move the plastic huts to fresh ground and prepare them for the calves. They hire extra help so they can take a break from feeding now and then, which they find helps them notice details they may have overlooked in the routine. They encourage their hired help to do a thorough job rather than a quick job.
As a rule, through, they're on the lookout for sick calves all the time -- especially during feeding. It's essential for Barb to keep an eye on the calf huts on the hillside below the house, and she treats sick calves mid-day if needed.
The Ashenbrenners avoid treating scouring calves with antibiotics unless a sickness progresses into pneumonia. They treat pneumonia with Naxcel and use penicillin only sparingly. They also focus on keeping sick calves hydrated by feeding bottles of electrolytes between feedings, and tubing fluids to the calf if necessary.
"I really like the calves," says Barb, who's glad to have a job that enables her to work from with her children. "I'd rather do this that anything."