The successful raising of the neonatal calf can be one of the most rewarding jobs on the dairy, or it can be one of the most challenging, costly and frustrating.
Nearly everything that’s essential to successfully raising dairy replacement calves involves the calf’s immune system and nutrition. The three major challenges accounting for high calf mortality are poor hygiene, compromised immunity and inadequate nutrition.
In spite of all the literature and advice that has been propagated over the years, the average mortality rate for newborn calves in the industry has improved little and still remains steady at about 8 percent. This means there are many dairy farms that have much higher mortality rates than this average.
Most calf mortalities occur in the first 30 days of life and are pathological or nutritional in nature.
Overwhelmingly, gastrointestinal disease is the largest contributor to neonatal calf mortality. Reportedly, one-fourth of all pre-weaned calves are treated for scours, and the major causes of death from scours are from either dehydration or a pathogen gains access to the blood, resulting in septicemia.
The newborn calf is nearly devoid of immunity. Therefore it is susceptible to a host of pathogens that can quickly make the calf ill. During gestation, there is no transfer of antibodies from the mother to the fetus, so the newborn calf is completely reliant upon the protection coming from antibodies in the mother’s colostrum.
The single-most important thing dairy farmers can do to significantly reduce the possibility of calves getting sick is to feed high-quality colostrum within the first 12 hours of the calf’s life.
According to Glenn Bahler, herd health manager at Oakridge Farms, an 1,800-cow dairy in Ellington, Connecticut, a clean maternity and calf-housing environment, two feedings of colostrum by 12 hours post-birth, along with vaccinations and doses of vitamins and minerals are key to getting baby calves off to a good start.
Calves receive an oral E. coli vaccine immediately after birth as well as getting their navels dipped. They receive their first feeding of colostrum while still in the maternity pen, and all colostrum is tested beforehand for adequate immunoglobulin levels.
Bahler says the dairy no longer finds it necessary to administer anti-scouring vaccines to pregnant cows at the time of dry-off. He feels the reduction in vaccinations has helped reduce stress levels in the dry cows that possibly contributed to frequent abortions occurring in the week after dry-off.
A day or two after birth, calves receive 1 cc via intramuscular injection of a multi-vitamin/mineral, which is a combination of trace minerals including selenium and vitamin E. The newborns also soon receive a bolus for additional protection from E coli.
Bahler says this regimen does an excellent job of preventing scours. About a week after birth, calves receive a dehorning paste, which eliminates the need for burning horns a couple of months later.
Neonatal housing, for small numbers or large, must be properly designed for easy cleaning, temperature control and good ventilation in all kinds of weather.
For most dairy farms that have been around for decades, calf-housing designs have evolved, especially as dairy farms have grown in size and calf raising and management becomes a full-time job.
Keeping a fastidiously clean and well-ventilated calf-raising environment as well as a clean and dry maternity pen for the birth will greatly reduce exposure to pathogens. Infectious pathogens abound in a poorly maintained calf-raising environment, with E. coli, cryptosporidium and coronavirus being some of the most common.
Even though there are many vaccines and antibiotics available for viral and bacterial challenges in calves, an ounce of prevention through sanitation is still worth a pound of cure when the calf gets sick.
Bahler speaks highly of his calf-raising staff and states he doesn’t have to worry about things not being done correctly. The chief caretaker of his calves, Maria, has been working for the dairy for over eight years.
As the dairy herd at Oakridge has grown over the years, the nursery facilities have evolved with a focus on sanitation, calf comfort and labor efficiency for the calf-raising staff. With an average calf population of about 300 on milk all year long, mixing and feeding milk must be done as aseptically as possible.
A stationary tank is large enough to mix up to 100 gallons of milk replacer at a time, which is then transferred into a mobile unit for distribution around the three calf barns. All equipment is sanitized daily.
Calves are housed in individual wire cages that can be lifted and moved for easy cleaning. Sand is used for the base, which is then covered with a thick layer of straw when the newborn is first put in the pen. Wood shavings are added every few days until it’s time for the calf to be weaned and moved out.
While the oldest of the three nursery barns is a wood-truss structure with plastic siding, Bahler notes the barn is difficult to keep warm in the winter. He has more recently opted for the newer greenhouse/clearspan style for the second two structures. Snow easily slides off of the plastic, and even on the coldest winter days the interiors remain comfortably warm.
However, all calves are still fitted with blankets by the middle of October for added protection against cold. During the summer months, the ends of the structures, fitted with automatic doors, are opened up and fans create tunnel ventilation that keeps the air from stagnating during those periods of high humidity common during New England summers.
All calves are fed a 30-32 percent protein/fat whole-milk milk replacer for 60 days, after which time they are weaned and moved into group pens that can hold 12 to 20. Bahler started feeding the 30-32 blend a few years ago and says the difference in health and growth is remarkably better than the 20-20 percent protein/fat milk replacers that had been used for many years.
He has found that keeping the calves on the higher nutritional plane with more protein and fat until 60 days old significantly improves their rate of growth. In the past, he’s tried to wean calves at 45 days but has come to the conclusion that keeping calves on milk solids rather than starter grain feeds is the better way to go.
The 30-32 blend also reduces the probability of negative energy balance when winter temperatures get excessively cold.
Bahler starts offering small amounts of a texturized calf starter grain to the calves several days after birth. After weaning, he switches to a grower feed that contains a coccidiostat. Even as clean and well maintained as his calf barns are, coccidiosis is still a challenge.
Bahler admits trying to lower dosages at times to cut costs but says he quickly returned to the full recommended therapeutic dose. As calves get to 3 months old, they are moved to another barn – this one a well-ventilated “older” wooden structure with an open-bedded pack. Once again, neatness and cleanliness count, and by the time calves make it to this age, the probability of health challenges are virtually nil.
There’s no question that raising calves is no easy task and one of the most labor-intensive jobs on the dairy. Calves represent the future of a dairy farm’s milking herd, and successfully raising them to be healthy and productive replacements should be a vital part of a dairy’s overall management strategy.
Planning and implementing a calf-raising program and working with a dedicated staff is critical in maintaining a successful calf-raising program.
PHOTO 1: The more recent calf structures at Oakridge Farms in Connecticut have been clearspan-style structures. These structures keep the calves comfortable in winter and are easily ventilated in warmer temperatures.
PHOTO 2: A worker prepares a milk tank for calves at Oakridge Farms.
PHOTO 3: By mid-October, all calves at Oakridge Farms are fitted with blankets for added protection against cold. Photos by John Hibma.
- Consulting Ruminant Nutritionist
- South Windsor, Connecticut
- Email John Hibma
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