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5 truths about raising Jerseys

Juan Rodrigo Pedraza and Tracy Vigil Published on 22 August 2014

Walking down a row of hutches or pens, they always stand out. First to greet you, full of curiosity, and of course, their brown coats. Jersey calves are gaining popularity across dairy and calf-raising operations in many parts of the country, including where we work in Texas.

Much like their Holstein counterparts, the first 60 days are critical to the future of their performance. However, there are important and unique breed characteristics raisers should keep in mind as they work with Jersey calves during these critical early life stages.



1. Jerseys are born small
Jersey calves are typically born with lower birthweights than Holsteins and will require extra care. While this helps to reduce the amount of dystocia or calving difficulties experienced by the breed, it also means these calves are born with very little body fat.

About 3 percent of a Jersey calf’s initial weight is body fat and is quickly expended by the calf to generate heat. This is why it’s critical at birth to ensure Jerseys are in a warm environment to prevent their body temperature from falling quickly. We recommend that Jersey calves be placed into a heated environment before being moved to the hutch during cool and cold weather.

Dehydration also is common for Jerseys, so producers need to get fluids into newborn calves quickly. This starts with high-quality colostrum, which is a vital component to calfhood growth and development.

Colostrum should be harvested clean and fed within two hours of birth. Follow up with another feeding eight hours later. Colostrum should be measured to ensure it will deliver adequate antibodies to the calf. For Jerseys, an appropriate feeding rate is 10 percent of bodyweight or 3 to 4 quarts.

Disease management is critical to calf wellness and should start before calves are born with dam vaccination to help bolster colostrum and help improve immunity. Another way to help reduce future disease challenges is to prime the immune system with an intranasal vaccine.


Work with your veterinarian to choose an intranasal vaccine that not only protects against three major pneumonia-causing viral pathogens, including bovine respiratory syncytial virus (BRSV), infectious bovine rhinotracheitis (IBR) virus and parainfluenza 3 (PI3) virus, but also is labeled to prevent respiratory disease caused by BRSV.

An intranasal vaccine delivered at birth can help stimulate immunity where pathogens attack first – the nose. It also will help prime the immune system for a memory response to subsequent disease challenges.

2. Jerseys need more fat in their diets
Nutrition can make or break a calf’s growth and development, especially in a Jersey. If you’re able to successfully raise them through weaning, the work gets much easier as they mature. The goal is for calves to gain an average of 2 pounds per day by 8 weeks old.

According to research conducted by Mike Van Amburgh at Cornell University, proper growth and development, especially before weaning, lead to better 2-year-old production and lifetime performance.

Jerseys have a higher maintenance energy requirement and need to start gaining weight to build their immune system quickly. A high content of protein and fat in the milk or milk replacer, such as a 28 percent protein, 25 percent fat milk replacer, works well.

Keep in mind that Jersey calves may have more watery or “loose” manure on this high-content protein/high-fat diet while being perfectly healthy. Temperature swings may demand that you modify how and what you’re feeding to ensure they are receiving enough calories and protein to maintain growth and development.


3. Jerseys transition more slowly
The transition from a milk-based diet to a post-weaned feed diet can be more difficult in Jersey calves. A lot of Jerseys will do really well until weaning and then go into a growth slump that lasts two to three weeks.

Transition challenges can decrease dry matter intake and open the door to pneumonia and other respiratory diseases. To make the transition correctly, start weaning them slowly to encourage them to eat more grain.

Cut the milk in half and then reduce it slowly from there. That way, when you move them to the larger group or running pens, their rumen is more developed and they can more easily adapt to a grain-based diet.

It’s also important to ensure Jerseys have adequate vaccination coverage during stressful times. Producers should work with their calf grower and veterinarian to agree on a vaccine protocol that covers each animal from the day she is born until she gets to the fresh pen. No one protocol fits every location, and it should be developed with the operation’s challenges in mind.

4. They can be bred to freshen earlier in life
Jerseys mature a lot earlier and will reach puberty sooner than Holsteins. This creates an opportunity to actively manage breeding to ensure a first calving age of at least 22 months old. Heifers that calve earlier in life deliver a more promising return on investment. Every month first calving is delayed beyond 22 months costs producers more than $100 per heifer in lost milk production opportunity and additional raising costs.

Reproduction is a strong trait of Jerseys, and many herds we work with have pregnancy rates of more than 28 percent. Consider administering a dose of prostaglandin on the day of movement into a breeding pen.

Heifers will show heats more easily and quickly, and all should come into estrus within the first week of being in the breeding pen. Just be sure to manage feed intakes so their body condition scores are at least 3 at breeding.

5. Jerseys need more calcium at calving
Milk fever, or hypocalcemia, can be a common challenge for Jersey heifers if they aren’t managed carefully. Hypocalcemia is caused by a shortage of blood calcium levels shortly after calving. The key here is management of minerals in the pre-fresh diet.

We’ve recommended producers add anionic salts to heifer diets to move more calcium out of the bone and into the blood quickly. The way it works is that the anionic salts help acidify the blood pre-calving, better opening the channels for calcium exchange between the bloodstream and the bone marrow.

When calcium demands go up at calving, these open exchanges help Jerseys better meet that need. Monitor urine pH levels once a week after they have been on the diet for at least one week.

Jersey calves are a fun and unique breed with which to work. If you focus on feeding and developing them right during the first 60 days, you’ll have set the foundation for helping them achieve their lifetime potential. PD

Tracy Vigil is territory business manager with Zoetis Dairy, and Juan Rodrigo Pedraza is senior veterinarian with Zoetis Dairy Technical Services.

References omitted due to space but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.