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Calf management practices to minimize losses

Peter Franz Published on 07 October 2009

In today’s dairy industry, calves are raised under a wide variety of environmental conditions. These conditions range from calves being raised outside under a wide range of weather and temperature conditions, to moderate confinement with open-sided exposure, to calves raised in total confinement.

Calf numbers on any premise may vary from a few head to hundreds or thousands. Regardless of the environmental conditions or number of calves, there are some calf management practices you should consider to minimize losses and produce healthy calves at weaning time.

Essential, universal management practices
Some veterinarians and dairy scientists believe the two most important management practices for successful calf management and production are: 1) the proper feeding of wholesome colostrum and 2) keeping the calves dry.

These essential practices involve a minimum of investment or capital and are primarily an expense of time and labor. Colostrum should be collected from cows that you think are free of disease and fed fresh if at all possible.

Calves should be given a minimum of 4 quarts of colostrum. Many calves cannot consume 4 quarts at one time and should be given 2 quarts within 4 hours after birth, and the second 2 quarts within 8 to 12 hours after birth or calving.

Many dairy scientists believe that calves over 12 hours of age have a reduced capacity to absorb the immunoglobulins or antibodies in colostrum by 30 to 50 percent. Even with the reduction inimmunoglobulins absorption after 12 hours of age, your calves can greatly benefit from feeding colostrum for the first two to three days of life, as wholesome colostrum contains up to 100 times the antibody or immunoglobin concentration of regular milk.

Keeping calves dry might be almost as important as colostrum feeding. Calves that are kept dry can survive extreme cold conditions if fed enough milk or milk replacer to provide sufficient energy and protein.

For reference, consider beef calves: Those born in cold climates survive quite well if kept dry and allowed to nurse their dams on a free choice continuous basis.

Feed intake
The sources of nutrients from birth to weaning are colostrum, milk replacer, regular or waste milk, or any combination of these. Regardless of the sources, your calves should receive a volume of fluid and milk product equal to 10 percent of their bodyweight on a daily basis.

When feeding milk replacer, many labels recommend feeding 0.5 pounds of replacer in 2 quarts of water twice a day, resulting in about 9 pounds of reconstituted volume. You should consider adjusting this volume according to the size of the calf.

The primary mistake is underfeeding the calf – especially calves weighing 90 pounds or more, and all calves exposed to cold weather. If your calves are exposed to extreme cold weather, you should feed them an extra amount ranging from 10 to 15 percent to provide sufficient energy during cold weather exposure.

Combating scours, dehydration
The No. 1 problem in raising young calves is diarrhea or scours. The complications of diarrhea scours are dehydration, which can lead to stunting or death; and the impairment of the immune system, which can result in respiratory complications and pneumonia. Many calf producers say that scours is a constant problem that requires consistent attention.

Work with your veterinarian to develop a prevention protocol that establishes the medications and vaccines you should use. Most veterinarians and dairy scientists now recommend feeding a source of milk nutrients throughout periods of diarrhea.

Calves essentially require a constant supply of readily digestible energy when combating diarrhea and dehydration. When fed frequently on a daily basis, calves can digest milk products without complicating enteric digestible disturbances and diarrhea.

Multiple feedings
Calves left on the cow after calving will nurse every 3 to 4 hours, and will nurse seven to 10 times a day, consuming 1 to 2 pints of milk at one nursing. Research has shown that calves that consume a maximum of 1 to 1.5 quarts at a time will better digest the milk with less digestive disturbances.

Most milk products range in pH from 6.5 to 8. The enzymes secreted or present in the calf’s stomach will digest milk most efficiently when the pH of the milk is reduced by stomach acids to a pH of 4 to 5.

By feeding smaller volumes of milk more frequently, calves can better utilize milk products when encountering diarrhea or digestive disturbances. Feeding your calves six to eight times a day may not be practical.

However, feeding calves three or four times a day has proven to be an excellent practice the first seven to 10 days after calving or whenever they have diarrhea. By feeding 0.25 pounds of milk replacer in 1.5 quarts of water four times a day, or a similar volume of whole milk, calves can better digest the nutrients when they encounter diarrhea.

If feeding four times a day is not practical, feeding 1.5 quarts water with 0.33 pounds of milk replacer, or a similar volume of milk, three times a day increases fluid intake over two- times-a-day feeding. Feeding three or four times a day with these volumes of multiple feedings will increase fluid intake by 10 to 50 percent to help combat dehydration.

Use electrolytes to combat dehydration whenever you observe calves that have scours or diarrhea. Some electrolytes can be administered both in milk products and in the drinking water. Be sure to follow label directions on electrolytes – some of them should not be administered within 2 to 3 hours after feeding milk products, as they tend to inhibit milk digestion.

Whenever calves are severely dehydrated, electrolytes should be administered by esophageal tube feeding, drenching, or in nipple bottles or pails to be certain of intake. By feeding milk products, electrolytes, and providing supplemental free-choice water, you can significantly reduce losses from diarrhea and dehydration.

Economical practices
Most good calf management practices, from birth to weaning, do not require a significant investment in capital.

These proven management practices an investment of your time and labor that will, in most cases, repay you with positive results – producing healthy calves at weaning. PD

Dr. Peter Franz is a DVM on staff at the Form-A-Feed and TechMix companies, headquartered in Stewart, Minnesota. For more information, e-mail him at or call (800) 422-3649.

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