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Improving calf performance: Attitude is everything

Drew A. Vermeire for Progressive Dairy Published on 07 June 2021

Would it surprise you that a critical difference between success and failure in raising calves is the attitude of the people taking care of the calves? How we view the calves and how we view our time are critical to success of the calf operation because they impact calf performance.

Taking care of calves is most important

I once had a brilliant client who shocked all of his calf ranch workers when he announced that they were all going to be fired. In the same meeting, he went on to explain that he had many openings for “calf caretakers” and that all of them were able to apply for those positions. His purpose was to refocus his workers’ efforts to taking care of the calves and to think of themselves as “calf caretakers” instead of just being workers, feeders, doctoring crew, etc. This dramatic exercise really seemed to improve the attitude of the workers and focus their attention on caring for the calves.

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Gentle handling improves calf performance

In the early 2000s, several French research studies examined the differences between veal farmers who were successful and those who were not successful. They found that productivity and mortality were most related to the behavior and attitude of the farmer. Gentle handling and providing gentle daily contact was important in teaching calves to respond positively to human contact. Daily management routines and farmers’ attitudes were the critical differences between successful veal farmers and those who struggled. In these research studies, they showed that a caring attitude toward the calves, gentle handling and more frequent human contact affected calves’ reactivity, ease of handling and transport, growth rate and meat quality. In other words, a caring attitude and gentle care positively impacts the most economically important production variables and is critical to success.

Surprising difference between farms with 0% or greater than 17% death loss

Through their national animal reporting, Danish researchers identified 15 dairy farms with zero calf death loss and compared them to 13 dairy farms with high (greater than 17%) calf death loss. Surprisingly, the primary differences were not the usual suspects of milk replacer, starter feed, vaccination program, genetics or farm size. In fact, the differences really didn’t relate to what we consider “standard operating practices.” The primary difference between farms with 0% mortality and farms with mortality greater than 17% came down to the attitudes of the calf managers. Successful calf managers with zero mortality maintained a strict set of routine tasks every day and had a concept the researchers called “flexible time” in which they completed needed tasks after the routine tasks.

Taking care of business

Calf managers with zero mortality adhered to a very strict set of routine tasks every day, which were kept absolutely fixed and included the following:

  1. Feeding calves every day at the same time
  2. Mixing milk replacer for the prescribed amount of time and at the prescribed temperature
  3. Feeding milk replacer at the prescribed temperature
  4. Following the same routine for checking calves before each feeding

They also had tasks that were more flexible based on their judgment, such as the amount of time and help needed by individual calves each day.

Flexible time: Crisis versus permanent crisis

The second area of difference was the concept of flexible time. While everyone has the same 24 hours in every day, the attitude of the good and poor managers toward time was very different. The zero mortality managers had a period of time every day that they considered flexible for them to deal with unexpected situations, which they viewed as a temporary crisis. On the other hand, managers with high mortality considered crisis to be a permanent condition and did not feel that they had flexible time. As a result, the managers with zero mortality felt that they were always in control of time (temporary crisis), while high mortality managers felt they were “running behind” and never had control of time (permanent crisis). 

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Preventing problems

Research and experience show that calf performance is better and calf operations are more successful when those people working with calves genuinely care about them and handle them gently. Some calf ranch workers treat calves with rough behavior and then expect that calves will respond gently when the calves have been conditioned to reach fearfully. Rough workers are better suited for jobs that do not involve working with livestock.

To be more successful, first create and implement a fixed daily schedule with written protocols for mixing and feeding milk replacer. Feed at the same time every day. Mix milk replacer the same way, for the same amount of time and at the same temperature for every feeding. Written protocols should be developed for feeding and treating calves as well. Finally, build two to three hours of flexible time after feeding to deal with problems as they arise. Surprisingly, these simple practices are the difference between success and failure!

References omitted but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.

Drew A. Vermeire Ph.D.
  • Drew A. Vermeire Ph.D.

  • Nutritionist
  • Nouriche Nutrition Ltd.
  • Email Drew A. Vermeire Ph.D.

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