What Does It Mean To Do A Really Good Job Raising Calves? - Interview with Bob Hostetler Calf and Heifer Specialist

What Does It Mean To Do A Really Good Job Raising Calves? - Interview with Bob Hostetler Calf and Heifer Specialist

This week I am excited to be summarizing an interview I did with someone who I consider a very good friend and mentor! His name is Bob Hostetler. Over the span of his career Bob has worked as a Dairy Nutritionist and a Life Coach. Bob got his start working with Milk Products, and overtime had experience working with Cargill and as an Independent Dairy Calf Consultant. Bob has always had a passion for youngstock and young people. Not only has been a great resource for raising calves, but he also enjoys being there to support and mentor those who are just beginning their careers in the dairy industry.


Near the end of his dairy nutrition career Bob took a little change of pace and went to work for one of his best customers, ST Genetics, at their Ohio Heifer Center. His roles there included nutrition, feed manager, and for a time calf manager. Bob recently retired and is transitioning to the next stage of life.


Q: Why is it important for us to do a good job raising replacement heifers?

A: It costs between $2,000 - $2,800 to raise a replacement heifer and get her transitioned into the lactating herd. It takes about 2.5-2.8 lactations to pay that money back in milk produced from that animal. In the United States the average dairy cow stays in the milking herd just 2.8 lactations and they are barely paying back in milk what it cost to raise them. If we want our farms to be making money off milk, rather than off of cull cows, we need to keep those animals in the herd longer. 

Data from Penn State tells us that calves that receive a second treatment for respiratory disease as a calf are 2.5 times more likely to leave the herd within 60 days after freshening.

It is common for many farms to be treating 60-80% of the calves for a pneumonia event. We have to solve the pneumonia issue in order to keep them in the milking herd for 4-5 lactations. Animals with a history of respiratory disease won’t breed back on time, it's harder to get them pregnant even the first time, and their feed conversion is worse. The economic effects of respiratory disease are huge.


Q: When raising calves what are some things that we should be measuring?

A: We want to be measuring those things that have an impact on the health of the animal and ultimately the economic return we will receive when they enter the lactating string.

The things that I look at most to overcome disease incidence and result in more milk in the tank include:

  1. Plenty of high-quality colostrum on time, and that means testing serum total protein (STP) on every animal.
  2. The percentage of animals that are being treated for respiratory disease.

Those are the 2 figures I really want to know. If there are too many animals with respiratory disease action needs to be taken immediately or those animals are going to end up as culls.


Q: How often should we be evaluating our calf rearing program is working, and how do we go about doing that.

A: At a minimum, every month I want to know how many calves are treated for enteric disease and how many are treated for pneumonia. The reason to do it monthly is because protocol drift is so easy to happen. The longer the problem persists, the more money is lost now and in the future.

I want to see those numbers for STP and disease incidence each month, and daily I would recommend checking the calving pen to see if it is wet.   


Q: What lifetime goals should we have for our cattle and how do we tie that back into how the calf was handled as a baby.

As a long-term goal, we need to be higher than the median milk production. I want to see heifers at 90% of mature cow production, not 80%. I want to see them at that 90% of mature production because I know that we are making genetic progress in our herd. It’s not usually a matter of genetics being in place, but a matter of are we in a position to take advantage of those genetics. We leave a lot of money on the table when we limit their genetic potential by the way we raise them as calves.

My opinion is, that it is not hard to waste money on calves, because of how high the cost of getting it wrong is. We have to have healthy calves. We need to have less than 2% death loss, less than 5% respiratory disease, and less than 20% enteric disease. Farms that are accomplishing that are profitable.


Q: Can we be successful meeting the animal’s genetic potential with different volumes of milk feeding programs?

A: We can! I have been on farms that only feed 2 quarts of milk 2 times per day, and they still have phenomenal results. The reason for that is that their disease challenge is so low that they didn’t need any extra nutrition to overcome disease.  On this particular farm their enteric disease incidence was less than 5% year-round! This farm was very focused on producing valuable genetics and they could justify the extra time they spent with the cow and the calf during the first few days of life to produce the great results they were getting with the health of the animal. That’s what is possible, but few farms can do that.

Most farms need significant levels of nutrition over maintenance to be able to fight of disease. If you are feeding large amounts of milk and still not getting great gains, it is probably because the environment won’t let you. It may be wet or windy, etc., and suddenly the calf doesn’t have enough energy and nutrients to produce it’s own immune function.

It depends on the goals of the farm to determine how much milk you can feed. The most successful programs I have seen typically feed 3 quarts 3 times per day. This means they have to wait longer to wean the calf, but what they are aiming for is longevity and they are succeeding.  

It does take a lot of labor to feed calves 3 times per day, however, farms that do have seen an 80-90% reduction in disease! Holy Cow! That extra labor for feeding sure saved a lot of labor and loss for treating.

I would advocate for feeding more milk. The more often a calf gets up to drink milk, the more they will explore and the more they will be encouraged to find their dry feed. Calves don’t immediately go lay back down after they finish their milk.  They nose around, and that's when they find their water and they find their feed. The balance comes from how quickly we want to wean calves. If calves are getting all they need from the milk, they won’t start eating dry feed as soon, and the rumen will take longer to develop.

If I were to design a farm from the ground up, I would start at 3 quarts 3 times per day, and I would drop to 2 quarts 3 times per day, and then drop to 2 quarts twice a day, and then wean them.  I need them to eat enough calf starter to meet their maintenance needs before they can be weaned.


Bob has been a huge influence in the dairy calf and heifer world, both for the cattle and the people. His nutrition consulting and mentoring has reached and molded many heifer programs and people in the industry. Thanks for sharing some of your greatest insights with us Bob!


Written by: Mariah Gull, M.S.

1 comment

  • Muhammad Iltamas

    Informative post

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