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Keeping Holstein steers alive and growing

Feeding Holstein steers for the beef market has swung from a sideline to full-scale operations in Canada. Favourable economics of this venture often coincide with the regular beef feeder market or are inversely scaled with lower grain prices.

Many people buy newborn bulls, either to be raised and resold to grower or finisher feedlots or taken right to market weight. Either way, producers should be aware that raising Holstein steers for profit presents its own unique challenges, even before they are weaned and eventually put in a feedlot for further growth and finish.

Right from the start, all viable Holstein beef operations must depend upon an established health program, which naturally dovetails into a step-by-step nutrition and management program.

That’s because a four-day old bull calf is a very vulnerable animal. The mortality rate of purchased Holstein bull/steers has been recorded as high as 75 per cent before they reach weaning age compared to less than two per cent reported by a typical beef-breed operation. The culprit of this health status imbalance originates when sold newborn Holstein bull calves fail to receive colostrum after birth.

Miss colostrum

Feeding colostrum to newborn dairy calves is one of the most common calf-raising recommendations followed by most dairy producers. The dairy calf is born with virtually no protection against disease and feeding colostrum within hours of birth gives it general disease protection for the next couple of months until it can develop a more permanent immune system. Bull calves that do not receive colostrum shortly after birth, have very low disease resistance and have a poor ability to handle any significant amounts of stress.

Therefore, dairy calf operators should purchase Holstein bull calves from a single reputable and known source such as large successful dairy operations which feed colostrum to all calves as part of their routine management practices. In contrast, there is no guarantee that auction mart calves have received proper colostrum care after birth and due to several changes to their environment are likely to be heavily stressed.

Even if one knows where the bull calves come from, avoid purchasing any poor-looking animals, skinny-boney calves, those coughing or with excessive nasal discharge or wet tails with diarrhea. The mistake of purchasing unhealthy bull calves usually follows the buyer; these poor calves are likely to remain “poor doers” in the preceding months after purchase or infect healthy calves already at home.

Proper vaccinations

The wise choice of purchasing sound, healthy calves is only a start. In the upcoming weeks before weaning, all growing bull calves should be castrated into steers and vaccinated against common cattle diseases. Consequently, a veterinarian consulted for a specific vaccine program (re: blackleg, malignant-edema, IBR, PI3, BVD, pasterella, and clostridial diseases) and type of effective vaccine (live or modified) to use.

He/she should also make out a specific timetable as to give vaccines as well as the recommended timeliness of booster shots. At vaccination time, one should also consider giving each calf an A, D, and E (with selenium) injection as well as a B-vitamin shot. A similar program to control internal and external parasites should also be recommended by a veterinarian.

Once a good health plan is chosen for Holstein steers, an equally important pre-weaned nutrition program should also be implemented.

High-quality milk replacer is going to be the sole feed source for these young calves until they reach two to three weeks of age. Newborn calves are born with an immature digestive system (with a non-functioning rumen), so their elementary stomachs can initially only break down simple compounds such as casein proteins and un-complexed dietary energy sources such as lactose milk sugar and saturated animal fats. These elements are typically found in 100 per cent milk-based milk replacers.

Milk replacers should contain 20 to 22 per cent protein, as well as a high fat content. Newborn calves should be started on a commercial product that is 20 per cent fat. Research has shown that this high fat level is necessary to meet their energy requirements and can support a desirable daily growth rate of about 250 grams (1/2 lb.). By the time dairy calves are a few weeks old, they should be consuming a significant amount of dry calf starter as another source of dietary energy and therefore the fat level in the milk replacer can be reduced to 15 to 16 per cent fat until calves are weaned.

Calf starter feeds should be introduced by the time calves are two weeks of age. It should be coarse textured or pelleted. Calves will initially nibble on it, but in a short time, each pre-weaned calf should be consuming about 0.5 to 0.75 kilo per day. Provide extra water, even while milk is being fed. Water consumption encourages good calf starter intake. When bull calves are about six to eight weeks of age, they should be consuming about 1.0 to 1.5 kilos of calf starter, daily.

Weaned from milk replacer

Once these bull calves are eating this amount of calf starter on a consistent basis and have doubled their body weight (about 90 kg) from the time of purchase, they should be weaned from their milk diets. These calves can continue on a post-weaning ration and rely on water as their sole liquid until they are about 180 kg.

For example, a total mixed ration of 80 per cent grain/20 per cent roughage is often recommended. That can include a complete coarse mix of corn/barley, supplemented with a protein such as soybean meal and 15 to 20 per cent ground alfalfa hay. This post-weaning ration should support about 0.90 to 1.1 kg of average daily gain in dairy steers, but as calves grow their dry matter intakes will increase while feed efficiencies will gradually decline. †

About the author


Peter Vitti is an independent livestock nutritionist and consultant based in Winnipeg. To reach him call 204-254-7497 or by email at [email protected]



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