There’s a growing market for dairy-beef. That means raising bulls to 12 to 14 months of age instead of marketing them as veal at seven months.

Dr. Amy Stanton

Dr. Amy Stanton of Next Generation Dairy Consulting shared her tips on how to get calves destined for that dairy-beef market off to the best start when she spoke at the Building the Foundation 2016 Dairy and Veal Healthy Calf Conference hosted by Veal Farmers of Ontario (VFO).

The conference was funded in part through Growing Forward 2 (GF2), a federal-provincial-territorial initiative. The Agricultural Adaptation Council assists in the delivery of GF2 in Ontario.

When buying dairy-beef calves, single or minimal sourcing is best for both the calf and the herd it’s coming into. Look for bright, alert calves with dry navels and that are free of diarrhea, she advised.

Knowing the sellers is important to be able to give them feedback on factors like colostrum quality, and an all-in, all-out system is best to keep virus and bacteria loads low. Bring calves into a clean and warm environment and monitor barn temperature.

“Ten to 15 Celsius is the lower critical limit for calves and a healthy calf will still spend energy to stay warm at this temperature,” she said. “Use jackets, keep them dry, and get calories into them.”

A good colostrum program is essential; a calf should receive four litres of clean, good quality colostrum within four hours of birth in order to ensure good passive transfer of immunity from its mother.

According to Stanton, colostrum quality makes all the difference. Many farms are unknowingly feeding poor quality colostrum, which can increase the risk of failure of passive transfer. A colostrum sample can be sent to the Animal Health Laboratory at the University of Guelph for quality testing, or can be tested on-farm using a Brix refractometer.

When it comes to dehorning and castration, dairy-beef breeds like Holstein or Jersey-beef crosses are easier to handle than beef animals and the procedures can be done easily at an early age. Pain management is required for both procedures under the national Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Dairy Cattle, which can reduce or eliminate their impact on average daily gain.

Costs for pain management tools vary, stated Stanton, depending on what is used. A local anesthetic is $0.25 per calf; a Non-steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug (NSAID) like meloxicam costs $1.75 to $2 per calf depending on the size of the animal, and $1.70 per shot for flunixin, which requires two doses per calf.

“Adding a sedative to a local anesthetic is less than a penny, but makes the calf very easy to handle,” she said of dehorning procedures.

Removing the horn bud before it emerges from the skull is called disbudding and can be done as early as one to three days of age if using caustic paste and by three weeks of age if using a hot iron. Once the horn tissue emerges from the skull, it is removed through dehorning by two to four months of age.

If using caustic paste, Stanton recommended applying it on the first day of the calf’s life when it is still unsure on its feet and therefore unable to rub at the horn bud. Keep the calf isolated so no other animal can lick or rub off the paste, and make sure the calf stays dry to avoid the risk of incomplete disbudding. Lidocaine around the horn bud is not recommended as the needle hole will increase the pain of the paste.

When using a hot iron, Stanton recommended administering lidocaine near the horn area to block the pain. It will take three to five minutes to take effect so she suggested restraining several calves at once, administering the anesthetic and then going back to disbud each animal in turn.

“There’s a rebound pain effect when the lidocaine wears off like head shaking and ear flicking,” she explained. “If we give them pain reliever, we avoid these behaviours and the procedure has a very small impact and stress on the animal.”

Less is known about pain control in castration, Stanton said. There are three common options for the procedure: the rubber ring, the burdizzo clamp and surgery done by a veterinarian. The rubber ring is more painful in older animals so calves must be less than one week of age for that method. The burdizzo clamp must be used on calves at least one month or older, and surgery brings with it an open wound that can become infected.

“Painful procedures are best at a young age. Have a good talk with your vet about what is best for your operation,” she advised. “There are inexpensive options available for pain control with the added benefit of easier handling.”

Additional resources on dehorning and castration: