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Calf nutrition: The foundation of a successful herd

Simon Timmermans Published on 27 April 2010

Paying attention to the calf from the start can be the best dairy practice when thinking about the future of your operation. After calving, it is time to route that time and attention towards the health of the baby calf. Once a calf is born, they often do not get enough attention, end up getting sick, grow poorly or even die.

Losing a Holstein heifer calf can cost $300, which during this current economic climate can leave some serious implications on the profitability of any dairy operation.



The gastrointestinal development of a calf is critical in raising them. A healthy intestinal tract will optimize nutrient absorption, which is where the conversion of feed to gain/growth occurs.

The basic question is this: What can be done to ensure the best development of the intestinal tract for optimal feed conversion? There are some basic concepts to remember and hopefully this will be a review of some early calf health fundamentals.

Manage your dairy diner
Reduce exposure to gram-negative bacteria. The calving area is the general source of contamination. Remember that even prompt separation of calf from dam does not guarantee breaking the disease cycle. The colostrum could be a source of transmission.

One way to monitor this is collecting colostrum samples for culture before it goes into the calf, to ensure that every piece of equipment along the chain is clean – whether there’s a stainless steel bucket that gets milked into, or if it goes through a pasteurizer. We can detect if there is a hygiene problem based on the bacterial count and identification.

Colostrum is a great culture media for bacteria like Salmonella. The producer may do everything by the book by collecting that proverbial gallon of colostrum. However, leaving colostrum sitting for three hours before refrigeration will allow bacteria to rapidly multiply. Furthermore, it could take 20 hours to chill and slow down the exponential growth of bacteria if it is refrigerated in large containers like the typical five-gallon bucket. I am favorable to storing in half-gallon bottles to increase surface area, which will drop the temperature more rapidly when refrigerated or frozen. Time is a key factor with colostrum.


Remember, these calves are born monogastric and also sterile. The last thing we want is for the first bacteria introduced to be the bad ones, without any sort of competitive exclusion existing at all.

Growing up on a dairy farm myself, it is amazing all of the places where contamination can come from. Pasteurizers are used to reduce bacteria in milk, but they can sometimes unexpectedly contribute to contamination without proper cleaning. Esophageal tube feeders can be another source if not completely cleaned inside and out with soap and brushing. Chlorine with hot water is not enough. We need to focus more on running a calf program like a restaurant. We’re in the food service business.

Nurturing with nutrients
Feed a higher plane of nutrition. Remember, better nutrition helps the calf. The milk being fed has to provide for the maintenance of the body, growth, respiration, digestion and many other things. When antibodies from the dam’s passive transfer are declining and the calf’s own immune system is building, that’s when calves are most susceptible to disease. The milk has to provide for all the maintenance needs plus the immune system, and that requires significant amounts of energy during disease challenges.

Insufficient milk replacer per day may result in poor gain, especially in cooler weather. In fact, many current feeding practices do not provide for growth during cold winters in outdoor conditions. This typically results in disease setting in and poor growth. The more nutrition you provide at that point, the better the calf is going to do, the less the scours is going to affect it, and the better it’s going to recover from the challenge.

Simple supplementation
Besides providing the right amount of energy and protein, dietary supplements have also been shown to improve calf health. We can successfully use probiotics with scouring calves as well as the mannan-oligosaccharide (MOS) technology. These two strategies allow competition for the bad gram-negative bacteria while binding them to the MOS and keeping them from causing scours. With the changes in regulations regarding antibiotics in calf feeding, this is a logical replacement for NT.

Most recently, nucleotides have been used in neonate milk replacers for many species, including calves, with some success. In calves it has been shown that adding a yeast-derived protein high in nucleotides, can enhance small intestine development, supply select amino acids and peptides essential for growth and production.


Have a coccidia control strategy. It is common to see calves go through the stress of weaning and have a tough time fighting coccidia. Treating calves preventively at weaning will help eliminate this added challenge. It is important to get ahead of the challenge because when the calf shows signs of coccidiosis, it is largely too late, as the damage has been done. Ionophores, Deccox and Corid can be useful provided that they are used before the stress of weaning.

The important thing to remember raising calves is that we can try everything from essential oils, antibiotics, coccidiostats, vaccination, MOS and nucleotides, but where is the source of our problems? If the industry as a whole focuses on the root of the problems, many of the treatment issues may be minimized. We need to treat the cause by managing the systems. You may not see many visible factors such as major changes in feed intake or gain; however, the calf will be healthier in the long run and that’s more money in your pocket at the end of the day when they are lactating first-calf heifers. PD

Simon Timmermans