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Calf care: Stick to the basics

Elizabeth Lunsford Published on 24 November 2015

Owning and managing a dairy presents different challenges on a daily basis, which can often result in overlooking the basics of raising calves. Getting your calves off to a good start can be the key to raising quality heifers.

Sticking to the basics and paying attention to detail when raising calves will help build a healthy immune system and maximize growth potential. One rule to live by is to double birthweights by 60 days. Keep in mind that the goal is to not only raise calves but to build muscle, bone and reproduction tracts in our growing heifers.



Start with the dry cow program

The dry cow program is often overlooked as a major part of any newborn calf program, yet it can have a major impact on calf performance. Do your calves seem to struggle the first couple weeks or even the first several months of life? In many instances, this is directly related to inadequate dry cow nutrition.

The goal of providing the calf with good-quality colostrum to maximize passive immunity can best be achieved by providing dry cows with adequate protein, energy, vitamins and minerals. To make sure cows produce an adequate volume of colostrum, closely monitor dry matter intakes in the dry period.

Low dry matter intakes may result in lower volumes of colostrum. It is a good idea to test dry feeds for molds, yeasts and mycotoxins, as the ingestion of these may result in significantly lower dry matter intakes.

Approximately 60 percent of fetal growth occurs during the last three months of gestation. Adequate dry cow mineral supplementation is a must for calf health and the development of a healthy immune system.

The dry period is an excellent time to consider the use of organic trace minerals and additional vitamins in the diet. Organic trace minerals can optimize absorption and passive immunity for the fetus.


Colostrum is key

The first 24 hours is the most important time of a newborn calf’s life, which is why administering colostrum as soon as possible after birth is so significant. “The sooner, the better” is a good rule of thumb.

According to Dr. Sam Leadley, Attica Veterinary Associates, plenty of good, wholesome colostrum early in life can make a big difference in the life of a calf. This is important not only for calf development but for the rest of her productive life.

Leadley offers these practical goals for colostrum management on commercial dairies:

  • Collect colostrum as soon as practical after calving. The best colostrum is right after the calf is born.

  • Keep colostrum pure. Clean teat ends, the collection bucket and nursing bottle.

  • Feed colostrum within 30 minutes after collection (or, if stored, chilled to 60.8ºF (16ºC) within 30 minutes after collection).

  • Offer colostrum to the calf as soon as possible after calving. Once she is breathing on her own and rolls onto her belly, she is ready to feed. Standing makes feeding easier.

  • Provide high-quality colostrum for the first feeding. A Brix refractometer or colostrometer will help sort out the best quality for first feedings.

  • Feed enough colostrum to supply plenty of antibodies. An average-size large-breed calf needs 4 liters of average-quality colostrum in the first four hours to promote adequate transfer of antibodies from dam to daughter.

  • Monitor the effectiveness of colostrum management. Work with a herd veterinary surgeon to set up a monitoring program using blood sampling. Good management should give 90 percent of calves above 5.0 blood serum total protein and 75 percent of calves above 5.5 blood serum total protein.

Calf starter and milk replacer

Once milk or milk replacer and calf starter are being fed, the focus should be meeting the growth rates for calves.

This is best accomplished by utilizing quality milk replacers and a calf starter that meet the amino acid requirements of the calf. Pay close attention to the vitamin and mineral content of calf starters.

There are many milk and milk replacer additives on the market that can help enhance a calf feeding program.


Winter brings on a whole new set of challenges when it comes to nutrition. The thermoneutral zone for a calf is 50 to 60ºF. Once the temperature has dropped below 50ºF, additional energy is required.

Additional energy needs are based upon ambient temperature and the size of the calf. These energy needs can be met by feeding additional milk or milk replacer. Another option would be to increase calf starter intakes.

Keep it clean

The environment in which a calf is raised has a huge impact on health and performance. Clean, clean, clean and clean some more. Keep equipment, utensils, hutches and employees as clean as possible.

Make sure housing has adequate ventilation and is designed in such a manner as to reduce drafts that may cause health problems. Bedding should obviously be clean, and soiled bedding should be removed as soon as possible.

Making sure equipment and utensils are cleaned and sanitized between feedings is one simple task that can be overlooked. Milk proteins have a tendency to adhere to the surface of equipment used for feeding.

It is a good idea to rinse first with cold water and then use a quality detergent or disinfectant with hot water. If the use of an esophageal feeder is employed, make sure it has been sanitized and use it on only one calf to prevent possible disease transmission.

Feed additives

Organic trace minerals and selenium yeast in calf feed or milk replacer additives may be used to support the immune system of young animals and optimize their response to vaccinations.

Used effectively in milk replacer and starter feeds, advanced yeast technologies can promote the nutritional status of the calf by enhancing gastrointestinal integrity and stability and by addressing calves’ metabolic profile. As a result, those advanced yeast technologies can aid in starter intake and bodyweight gain.

Reaching your goals

When planning for the future, don’t forget about the current health and performance of newborn calves. By focusing on the basics of the dry cow program, such as colostrum quality, quantity and administration, the environment of calves and choosing the correct feed additives, you can reach lifetime performance goals in your herds.

Developing protocols in each of these areas and consulting with your nutritionist and veterinarian to make sure you are following the steps to true lifetime potential and performance is a great place to start.  PD

  • Elizabeth Lunsford

  • Dairy Marketing Manager
  • Alltech
  • Email Elizabeth Lunsford