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Avoid these calf-raising bottlenecks

Kelly Reed for Progressive Dairy Published on 31 December 2020

There are several systems on a dairy that need to operate in concert with one another for the entire dairy operation to be efficient. Every day, dairy producers have to manage feeding, milking, health, manure and other aspects.

Each bears its own set of challenges and bottlenecks that can impede smooth operations.



Your heifer management program is also a key system. Your calf and heifer herd is like a separate herd on your dairy – there are nutrition, health, reproduction, manure and other elements that are quite similar to the systems incorporated in a lactating herd. Bottlenecks can occur in your calf and heifer program too, and attention to those challenges is important.

Identify your bottlenecks

Calves in their pens

Conducting an audit of your calf management program is one way to identify whether bottlenecks are impeding progress. An audit, performed either on your own or through a third-party expert, can identify if systems are performing smoothly or compliance to protocols are out of place. Continuous improvement can be achieved if data is recorded over time and analyzed to identify bottlenecks.

There are three primary areas to consider when evaluating bottlenecks to your calf management program:

1. Nutrition


2. Cleanliness and sanitation

3. The environment


Your calf nutrition program starts by getting enough high-quality colostrum into the calf as soon as you can after birth. It is important to make sure the colostrum is as high-quality as possible, which starts by harvesting colostrum from the cow cleanly and as quickly as possible after calving. Cows reabsorb immunoglobulins soon after calving, so colostrum quality drops the longer you wait to harvest.

Once harvested, cool it as quickly as you can to prevent bacterial growth. Then, when feeding colostrum, make sure it’s fed in a timely manner and that all equipment is clean and sanitized.

Take time to examine bottle nipples, which can become worn out from repeated use and cause an excessive amount of milk to be delivered. While it is not as big of a problem for mature calves, it’s not good for newborn calves just learning to drink from a bottle. Fill a bottle and hold it upside-down after putting on the nipple. If milk drips out, it’s fine. If there is a steady stream of milk, the nipple needs to be replaced.

Whether you’re feeding whole milk or milk replacer, consistency is key. Milk should be delivered at the same total solids, temperature and time every day. Use a Brix refractometer to measure total solids, keeping in mind that the actual total solids is 1.5 to 2 points higher than the readout. Strive to have a consistent value for every feeding, every day.


Make a goal of delivering milk between 95ºF and 105ºF every feeding. In terms of quantity, make sure bottles are filled to the desired level each time, minus the foam.

It’s important to ensure calves are getting enough calories, especially during cold weather. When feeding calves twice a day, provide at least 2.5 liters of 12-gram-per-deciliter total solids milk each feeding to meet maintenance requirements in moderate weather. I encourage 3 liters per feeding and up to 15 grams per deciliter of total solids during cold weather. To meet growth goals, greater volumes and/or solids may need to be fed. Test whole milk since quality can vary considerably, and consider using a fortifier if necessary to boost solids content.

As calves migrate to starter grain, only offer as much as you expect the calf will eat. If too much is fed, spoilage can occur. Dump starter buckets at least two times per week, and offer any refusals to older animals.


If great care is taken to harvest and feed clean, high-quality, pathogen-free colostrum as well as milk and milk replacer on a daily basis, much of that effort could be lost if the feeding equipment is dirty or contaminated. An ATP meter can give an indication of bacterial levels on equipment surfaces. The meter analyzes samples swabbed from clean surfaces, giving a readout of surface bacterial growth. A reading under 30 is ideal, and anything over 200 is significantly contaminated. Use your eyes, too – if something looks dirty, it needs to be cleaned.

Pasteurization can reduce the number of harmful bacteria in colostrum. Take a colostrum sample before and after pasteurization to make sure the process is doing its job, since heavily contaminated colostrum will still be of poor quality after pasteurization. end mark

PHOTO 1: Photo by Mike Dixon.

PHOTO 2: When identifying bottlenecks in their calf operations, farms should examine three key areas: nutrition, environment and sanitation. Photo by Mike Dixon.

Kelly Reed, DVM
  • Kelly Reed, DVM

  • Ruminant Field Technical Specialist
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