Happy calves come from Minnesota

A team of researchers is monitoring calves’ diets on the St. Paul campus to keep them healthy in the winter.

Animal science research assistant Zach Sawall guides a calf on to a scale Friday morning at Dairy Teaching & Research Center in St. Paul.

Anthony Kwan

Animal science research assistant Zach Sawall guides a calf on to a scale Friday morning at Dairy Teaching & Research Center in St. Paul.

Kali Dingman

Noah Litherland feeds his research subjects âÄî young dairy calves âÄî twice a day as they sit in their small hutches outside the dairy farm on the University of MinnesotaâÄôs St. Paul campus.

A 6:30 a.m. breakfast and dinner later in the day âÄî each meal tailored to an individual calf âÄî is crucial for them to get through the cold winter months.

Litherland, an assistant professor in the Department of Animal Science, and a team of students are looking at the cows to provide insight into cold stress in calves and their growth responses in the cold winter weather.

The research, funded by the Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station, began in October.

The goal is to find the right amount of fat supplements for each of the calvesâÄô diets. LitherlandâÄôs study could provide evidence for a way to feed calves in the cold weather that would increase calf health and performance, said Zach Sawall, a research assistant in the department.

Rebekah LaBerge, a senior University student involved in the study, said the research is important for farmers in the Midwest because investing in maintaining calf health will save farmers money in the future.

Litherland said calves are born with 2 percent body fat and therefore burn the calories they take in quickly. They need these calories for their bodies to grow, but too many will make them sick.

During their first 60 days, the calves stay in small hutches that are heated by their own bodies. Some of the smaller calves wear a jacket to stay warm.

Every morning at 6:30 and again at 4:30 p.m., Litherland and his students feed the calves, and their condition is tracked daily.

âÄúMost people donâÄôt understand that dairy farming is a 365-days-of-the-year job,âÄù Litherland said.

While on the farm, the researchers measure the amount of feed for each individual calf because some need more fat supplements than others. They also weigh the calves and study their manure to see how the supplements are affecting them. If the calf is unhealthy, the researchers will change the dosage.

On average, one cow can produce about 10 gallons of milk a day, but Litherland said dairy cows prefer the winter over the summer months. They can produce about twice as much milk in the coldest months of the year as in warmer months.

Even so, the young calvesâÄô frail bodies need extra attention for them to survive the cold. But the calves on the St. Paul campus usually thrive.

âÄúWe rarely ever lose a calf,âÄù Litherland said.

The group has been having a difficult time conducting the study this winter because of the strangely warm temperatures but noticed the calves eating much more when the temperatures dropped. The young cows typically eat more on cold days because they need to consume more calories to stay warm.

âÄúCows arenâÄôt like humans; they donâÄôt eat until they are full,âÄù Litherland said. âÄúThey only eat what they need.âÄù

By not using artificial food chemicals in the milk replacers fed to the calves, the researchers hope to appeal to a public that is generally moving toward reducing artificial food in their diet, said Clara Johnson, another student involved in the project.

âÄúHopefully this encourages people to support the farming community more,âÄù Johnson said. âÄúIt steers the stereotypes away from farmers that they only use artificial products to feed their animals.âÄù

Even though the study is a lot of work, research assistant Dayane Da Silva said itâÄôs all worth it.

âÄúGetting up early in the morning is worth it because I am doing what I love,âÄù Da Silva said. âÄúI feel important doing good things for the world.âÄù