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5 basics that build healthy calves

Jarred Kopkey for Progressive Dairy Published on 14 October 2019
dairy calves

How to raise healthy calves. It’s a subject that gets beat to death – I know that. But what if we are making it harder than it needs to be? What we often fail to focus on are the foundational pieces of healthy animals.

The great basketball coach John Wooden said, “Champions are brilliant at the basics.” The same concept translates well to calves, because their success breaks down to just that – the basics. Think of it in these five categories: housing, nutrition, cleanliness, consistency and supplementation. Individually, they seem like small things, and it may seem like an easy task to do one or maybe two of them successfully. But it’s not about doing one of them well, or even two. The whole, as they say, is always greater than the sum of its parts. The real change in performance happens when all five areas get the focus and follow-through they deserve.




Housing always seems straightforward. A calf needs a dry, draftless area to call home, but don’t forget to question whether or not all the calf’s environmental needs can be met in this area. Is the water and feed easy to access? If individual care is needed, can caretakers access the calf easily? After all, better accessibility makes it easier for workers to provide appropriate care.

The environment should be free of any dangers where the calf could injury itself. I’ve seen numerous calves break legs and rip out eartags because their environment wasn’t well suited for them. All avoidable, all money down the drain. Adequate bedding must also be a priority. Some of the best advice I’ve ever received came from a mentor who said, “Bedding is cheap; sick calves are not.” A calf’s first bedding should be very dense – so dense that when the calf is lying down, the bedding covers its legs entirely. Straw is a great choice, especially in areas where nights dip below 55ºF.

Though commonly used, sawdust comes with a lot of potential problems. It’s not good for your calves to inhale; it easily finds its way to the naval stump; and it always has to be covered when it’s stored. If you plan on using sawdust as your primary bedding source, just make sure it’s not too fine and it stays dry. A great compromise would be a layer of sawdust with straw on top of it. In that usage, the sawdust does a great job of absorbing extra moisture, while the straw keeps the calf warm.

Ultimately, it’s about keeping moisture to a minimum. Wet calves are sick calves. A great tool to invest in is a thermometer that monitors the humidity level. Keeping humidity as low as possible will save you the headache of many battles with respiratory diseases.


Nutrition is never cut and dry. Weather and location make calves’ needs vary widely. Take a minute to think about the calories your calf is getting. Are they high quality, and are your calves getting what they need? Calves will utilize calories in three different ways:


  1. Maintenance
  2. Growth
  3. Immunity

It always follows that order, and priority needs to be on getting the calf to the immunity phase of caloric intake. Utilizing a high protein diet in the first month, in both milk and starter, lays a great foundation to successfully maintaining a strong immunity.

Here’s your next rule of thumb. Not all calories are created equal. The source of fat is very important when it comes to the milk diet of a calf. Lard and tallow can’t be fully digested and utilized by the calf. Formulas with more coconut oil will allow your calves to utilize more of the fat calories and push them to that immunity phase of nutrition. Remember, that’s the end goal. When you’re looking at the source of protein, the same logic applies. Formulas with a soy- and wheat-based protein may be cheaper, but they aren’t doing your calves any favors because they’re not able to be utilized fully. All-milk formulas, in the long run, will save you money on treatment costs and poor performance.


Never overlook the importance of a clean environment. Everything the calf may come into contact with must be clean, especially anything that comes into contact with milk. I once worked with a large operation that was having trouble developing a good protocol for cleaning milk feeding equipment. The testing we did showed the SPC/chloroform population was TNC, too numerous to count. After trial and error, we solidified a good protocol to get the equipment clean on a daily basis. Once the cleaning was happening successfully, we saw a scour rate reduction of about 50%. It resulted in dramatically lower medication bills. It’s a great example of the life logic, “time is money.” The little bit of extra time employees spent cleaning the equipment paid off in real dollars and cents.

When it comes to cleaning, there are many possibilities. Work with the vet that services your calves, and put the time and effort into having them test for bad bacteria. Test buckets, test nipples, etc. Find the problem areas, and take the time to put a plan in place to eliminate them.


I think of consistency as the hidden dark horse. Calves, much like children, crave consistency. Do you have consistent feeding times, milk temps, starter grain and schedule? Watch out for milk replacers that tend to be inconsistent. That’s a big stressor for young calves.

Keep a digital thermometer around to check the temperature of milk on both the first calf fed and, equally important, the last calf fed. Once you’ve figured out a system that works, do the same thing, in the same order, every day. Personally, I prefer this order: milk feeding, water, grain, re-water, treatments, bedding, milk phase and water.



Don’t forget to focus on gut health. A calf’s defense system is built and maintained in their gut. Supplementation needs to be a focus right from the start. When the calf is born, they need something to “kickstart” the gut and immune system. There are several products that do this well. A prebiotic/probiotic/targeted egg proteins combination supplement can be the make-it-or-break-it addition. Their appropriate use and management should greatly reduce your need for antibiotics. As an added benefit, the animals will respond much better when antibiotics are needed.

Success in a calf program at any farm takes time, research and effort. It can be overwhelming, but if you take the time to focus on these five things and not just do them, but do them well, you’ll have success in your program.  end mark

PHOTO: "Not all calories are created equal. The source of fat is very important when it comes to the milk diet of a calf. Lard and tallow can’t be fully digested and utilized by the calf. Formulas with more coconut oil will allow your calves to utilize more of the fat calories and push them to that immunity phase of nutrition." —Jarred Kopkey. Photo by Mike Dixon.

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