Current Progressive Dairy digital edition

Calf care essential to a dairy’s future

Mark Taylor Published on 19 September 2012
Calves are essential to a dairy operation, as they represent the future of the herd and its income. They are also the most vulnerable segment of a herd, highly susceptible to disease with the highest mortality rate among dairy cattle in their first eight weeks of life.

With calves serving as the cornerstone of any successful dairy, every effort should be made to keep them protected and healthy. For the best care of calves, there are four main areas to consider.

While cattle are equipped to handle a wide range of temperatures and weather conditions, proper shelter can offer additional protection and prevent unnecessary energy use by the animals to cope with the elements.



The choice of a pen, hutch or other form of housing for calves depends on a number of factors specific to a given dairy, but operators should ensure that any type of shelter provides some basic, essential benefits. These include proper ventilation, efficient drainage and sufficient space, bedding and clean water.

Proper cleanliness and hygiene are vital to the health of calves left vulnerable by developing immune systems. Thoroughly disinfect any shelter before placing a new calf inside and regularly change bedding, feed and drinking water once moved in. When working with calves, be sure all clothing and boots are clean.

Calves are entirely dependent on colostrum for protection from disease, making it arguably the most important factor to raising healthy, productive cattle. They should consume two liters of colostrum within the first hour of birth and an additional two liters between six and 12 hours after birth. Always verify quality of the colostrum with a colostrometer prior to feeding and use frozen reserves when blood or mastitis are present in the tested sample.

Fly control
Anyone who has worked on a dairy can attest to how big of a nuisance flies can be – but some of the very significant problems they can cause often go overlooked. First and foremost is the spread of disease. Each of the three previously mentioned components of calf care serve to help protect calves and their weak immune systems from disease, and fly control is no different.

Scours is the leading cause of death in dairy calves and one of the most difficult symptoms to treat once a calf is infected. House flies can carry numerous bacteria that cause enteric diseases and expose calves to them – even those kept in isolation. Pinkeye is another common disease affecting cattle of all ages and can be spread by face flies that feed on mucus and secretions around the eyes of the animal.


Heavy exposure to flies can have additional consequences for calves beyond disease. Calves can spend excessive amounts of energy to dislodge flies – occasionally referred to as “twitch and switch” – that can lead to unwanted weight loss. Additionally, the stress from flies and pain inflicted from any bites has been shown to lead to a decreased appetite among calves, affecting feedings.

Dairies that combine various fly control methods with a proper integrated pest management (IPM) program will see the most significant reduction in flies and the problems they present. IPM is a pest control strategy that uses an array of complementary methods including natural predators and parasites, cultural practices, biological controls, various physical techniques and insecticides.

Proper sanitation practices, such as cleaning up spilled feed and preventing manure buildup around barns and fences, will eliminate breeding sites for these flies. Adult flies can also migrate from other areas and may require the use of on-animal and premise insecticide applications and/or the use of traps and baits to control them.

Feed-through insect growth regulators are relatively new to the market and can become a component of any IPM program. Unlike conventional insecticides that attack the nervous system of insects, feed-through regulators work by interrupting the fly’s life cycle rather than through direct toxicity.

Given the significant problems posed by flies to calves – and all cattle on a dairy – effective fly control is essential to maintaining healthy, comfortable calves that grow to be productive cattle. PD

Taylor is the director of marketing for Central Life Sciences. Click here to email him.