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Inspection time: How to do an effective calf walkthrough

Stephen Hayes Published on 30 April 2013

I am often asked to visit a calf operation to discuss feeding programs, disease prevention, operation management and overall calf performance. On these visits, we usually start in the office or the milk mixing area and go over expectations of the visit or establish goals of the operation.

These meetings are important, but there is nothing like a good old-fashioned calf walkthrough to help understand how an operation can be improved. The following is a guideline for how to effectively walk a calf operation:



Dry cows
Start every calf walkthrough with the dry cows. Both the far-off and the close-up cow locations should be evaluated. Evaluate the body condition and comfort level of the dry cows. Then follow up with a visit to the maternity area. Key areas to focus on would be:

• Is the calf at risk of being born into a pathogen-filled area?

• How easy is it to manage the cows and calves at this stressful time?

• Where will the calf be placed after it is born?

• How will the calf be “processed” after birth and is it simple for the calf handlers to do their work?


• Are any records being kept?

Key point – Calves that are sick within the first three to four days of life are most likely exposed to a pathogen in the maternity pen or colostrum feeding area.

After looking at the maternity area, focus on the colostrum preparation area. This is a good time to discuss the details of colostrum collection, storage and feeding protocols. Items to evaluate are:

• What are the sanitation protocols for the collection, storage and feeding equipment?

• Have samples been taken to evaluate standard plate counts of colostrum?

• Is the temperature of the refrigerator less than 40ºF?


• Is there any quality testing of colostrum? If a Brix refractometer is used, has it been “zeroed” recently?

• How rapidly is the colostrum frozen and thawed?

• Are there any concerns with the damage of antibody proteins or with bacterial growth?

• Are bottles or tube feeders shared between colostrum feeding and sick calves?

• Is a colostrum replacer used? What level of globulin protein does it have? Current recommendations are for at least 150 grams of globulin protein to be fed.

Calf housing and transport
The next step is to see where the calf is fed colostrum. How did the calf get to this location? Wheelbarrow? Cart? People? Check to see how clean it is and if all-in all-out cleaning principles are in place.

Then evaluate how the calf gets from the colostrum area to the calf housing area. In short – is there anything that would indicate a problem with pathogen exposure in the first few hours of the calf’s life?

Milk mixing/calf feeding location
There are three items to focus on in this area.

Cleanliness: What is the risk of passing pathogens from calf to calf in this area?

• Is the equipment clean, stored properly and convenient to access?

• What is the sanitation procedure? Ask to see the whole process and what chemicals are used.

Milk or milk mixing system: What is being fed and is it consistent and proper for the calf’s expected growth rate?

• What level of solids are being fed? Is a Brix refractometer being used correctly?

Organization and record-keeping: Can things get done properly and with efficiency?

• Are any records kept?

• Is it simple to comprehend how the whole system is working? If not, it probably is not being done the same every day and every feeding.

Calf housing area
It is finally time to look at the calves. Start with the youngest calves first and work your way to the oldest calves last.

• Begin by evaluating where the next newborn calf will be placed. Is the pen properly cleaned and bedded?

• Then move to the youngest calves. Are they bedded properly? Are these calves fed first and assisted with drinking before moving to older calves? Always feed from the youngest calf to the oldest calf. Also work with healthy calves before treating the sick ones.

• Follow the path of the milk feeder, looking at each calf as you go. Evaluate:

• Body condition changes

• Bedding status

• Manure

• Nose, mouth and ear status of each calf.

• Are calves standing or laying down? Are they vocal? Do they seem hungry?

• Do the starter and water buckets have fresh feed and water? Is the starter quantity in the buckets appropriate?

• Are calves scouring or do they have signs of respiratory disease? What age does it start? How long does it last? How severe is it? Dehydration status? Nasal discharge?

• Look for signs of calves being treated. Look for records to see what the treatments are and if they make sense for the clinical signs you are seeing.

• After calves are 2 weeks old, look for evidence of calf growth. It should be obvious that calves are starting to fill out and develop frame by 2 weeks old. If not, get more details on feeding volumes and schedules.

• If calves are phase-fed with different levels of milk or powder, identify which calves are transitioning from one stage of feeding to another. Are calves showing a response to the changes noted?

• Look at starter feed volume. As calves get past 2 weeks old, you should be able to see starter consumption going up steadily. Look to see in the area of weaning how much starter is being eaten. A good goal is to have three pounds or more of starter consumed per calf per day prior to weaning.

• If respiratory problems are present, look into air quality issues.

• Finally, get a good look at the oldest calves in the pens prior to when they go to a weaned group pen. Will they stay in this condition, improve or stall out after moving? This is to be determined when you visit the group pens after this area.

Weaned pens
Time to see if the weaned calves are adjusting to the group pens. Evaluate the following items:

• Do the calves have free access to the same starter feed as they were eating prior to the move? There should be no headlocks or anything that would reduce grain consumption in the first week of life.

• Is there easy and adequate access to clean fresh water?

• Do not change forage consumption for the first week of group pens. If no forage was offered to calves on milk, then no forage should be offered in the first week in the pen. Forage can be successfully introduced after one week.

• Evaluate adequate laying space with bedding, good ventilation and proper pen size for group numbers.

Overall, the above walkthrough guidelines can be used to identify strengths and weaknesses of a calf program. There are many details to the above that can be expanded, but taking the above approach will assure a good evaluation of a facility and calf performance.

After the walkthrough, it is time to recap findings and develop a plan of action for further improvements in the care and feeding of the calves. It is always best to prioritize any action plans.

More than two or three items at any one time can be hard to follow. Focus on just one or two key items and then set up a follow-up time for another walkthrough. PD

Hayes is a veterinary consultant with Day 1 Technology, based in Winona, Minnesota.


Stephen Hayes
Veterinary Consultant
Day 1 Technology