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How to get your heifers the right health tools to succeed

Bruce Vande Steeg Published on 25 August 2011
It can be debated whether heifers are the most low-maintenance group on the dairy. The truth is they can be low maintenance, if we give them the right start. Healthy heifers come from healthy calves and they become productive cows when we give them the tools they need at the right time.

Start your heifer health protocol as soon as they are born. Calving pens should be cleaned after each cow gives birth to reduce opportunity of disease transmission. After a cow has calved, don’t wait to milk the recently fresh cow with the animals in the hospital or fresh pens.

Harvest her colostrum soon after calving and feed fresh colostrum to the calf within two hours of birth. Keep in mind that cows stop producing colostrum shortly before or at calving. When milk production starts, colostrum is replaced by the onset of milk production and dilutes the benefits of colostrum.



Proper and prompt feeding of colostrum to a newborn calf from a healthy dam can provide four to five months of protection against many common challenges a calf may face when given adequate nutrition and management.

When calves are young, aim for realistic targets to measure the success of your calf-rearing. Mortality is one statistic commonly used, and you should aim for no more than 3 percent mortality in your calf operation.

However, morbidity describes the number of calves that experience an illness, and might be a more useful measure to use. This is especially true if you’re good at nursing calves from the brink of death. Realizing a goal of treating fewer than 10 percent of calves at some point during their early days suggests you’re doing a good job with your management program.

Remember, most calves are born healthy and were not predestined to get sick. Don’t accept the abnormal as normal.

Let’s take one newly weaned heifer, for example. Shortly after weaning and a brief transition period, heifers are often kept in large, commingled groups until just before calving.


While some group members may have a similar health status, others may be purchased or raised in different locations. These new surroundings come with exposure to diseases unbeknownst to this young heifer, and it’s what makes a good start so important.

At 4 to 6 months old, maternal immunity has declined. At this point, developing a strong health program with the use of vaccines becomes vitally important. Vaccinations should be viewed as an insurance program for health, rather than a bandage to a current disease challenge.

A vaccine that combines reproductive and respiratory protection is a first step. Pneumonia is a real concern at this point and can cause long-term consequences. Heifers that contract pneumonia can have slower growth and permanently damaged lungs. This can lead to decreased milk production down the road, since the heifer won’t be able to produce to her potential because of the chronic lung damage.

A vaccine that combines respiratory and reproductive protection can also help protect against one of the most economically devastating diseases in a dairy herd, BVDv (bovine viral diarrhea virus). In the subclinical state of BVDv infection, you’ll experience a reduction in growth, reproductive success and future milk production.

The economic losses associated with BVDv infection in a dairy herd was summarized in a 2002 study. The authors estimated losses to be $34.64 per cow – before considering milk production losses. For a herd of 500 cows, that’s a loss of $17,320.

Vaccination, good management, testing for persistently infected (PI) individuals and culling those PI herd members is a great way to stop BVDv from taking hold of your herd. When selecting a commercially available vaccine, consider protection against BVD Types 1 and 2, as well the other major causes of respiratory disease.


Ask the right questions
A vaccination protocol for heifers needs to encompass a broad range of factors affecting your herd. First, consider your farm’s situation. Are heifers raised solely indoors, or are they on pasture? What health challenges have you faced in the past and what challenges may your heifers face throughout their growth?

The Dairy Calf and Heifer Association’s Gold Standards recommends that growing heifers receive vaccinations that include protection against clostridial disease, BVD Types 1 and 2, IBR, BRSV, leptospirosis, pneumonia caused by Pasteurella multocida and Mannheimia haemolytica, among others.

Determining when a vaccination should be administered is also a challenge for many producers. Considering the needs of the animal should be addressed first when scheduling the vaccination. It is important to ask questions that consider the stage of life or gestation, weather and if vaccines are modified-live or killed.

These factors focus primarily on the needs of the animal, instead of convenience for you. There must be efficiency from a worker standpoint, but greater value is realized when the animal’s needs are placed first.

Administering multiple vaccinations at the same time can also be convenient, but not practical, as this can place more stress than necessary on cows. Consult with your herd’s veterinarian as you make these decisions. However, a good rule of thumb is to not use more than three gram-negative vaccines (i.e., Salmonella, E. coli, Leptospirosis, Mannheimia) at one time.

I recommend producers work closely with their veterinarian to develop a health program from the young calf through the adult cow. Design a program that works for your labor and management situation, while also keeping heifers protected throughout their productive life. PD

Bruce Vande Steeg is a professional services veterinarian with Boehringer Ingelheim Vetmedica, Inc. and is based in Colorado.

References omitted due to space but are available upon request to .

Bruce Vande Steeg