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Jump-start your calves

Betsy Karle for Progressive Dairyman Published on 24 May 2016

Calves – they’re not easy to raise, and we don’t get any payback for at least two years. They get sick easily and take abundant resources, especially time and money, to rear into productive contributors to the herd. Are they worth all this effort?

Research indicates they are indeed. A recent comprehensive review article concluded the level of investment in our calves truly does make a difference in the future productivity of our herd.



Numerous studies have quantified payback, showing significantly more milk production in the first lactation and an earlier age at first calving. The following is a review of some of the steps to success for raising healthy calves.


We all know an adequate amount of good-quality colostrum is vital to the short- and long-term health of a dairy calf. Yet the failure of passive transfer of immunity through colostrum in dairy calves across the nation is pushing 20 percent. Why are one in five calves still not getting what they need from colostrum?

Data from a study we conducted throughout California indicate that only 33 percent of dairies consistently test colostrum quality before feeding. Another 8 percent test colostrum sometimes, but that leaves a solid 59 percent that can’t be sure the colostrum they are feeding is up to par.

In a study in Tulare, researchers found that colostrum quality can be highly variable on a single dairy. Training and established procedures are vital to ensure the best-quality colostrum is being fed to calves.

Timing is also key. Recent data at the national level (NAHMS 2016) revealed that the majority of dairies are feeding 2 quarts of colostrum at the first feeding. By the time feeding No. 2 rolls around, gut closure may be imminent, resulting in the failure of passive transfer of immunity.


In a positive trend, a recent northern California study indicated that about half of dairies feed the full recommended 4 quarts of colostrum in the first feeding, giving calves a better chance to effectively absorb the appropriate level of colostral antibodies (Figure 1).Colostrum volume (quarts) in first 12 hours

Plane of nutrition

We feed calves an assortment of liquid diets, from waste milk to a wide variety of milk replacers to salable milk. As with colostrum, we need to consider the quality of the product we are feeding our investment. Survey data we collected throughout the state indicate greater than half of dairies are feeding waste milk to calves, but only 29 percent of dairies pasteurize (Figure 2).

Pre-weaned calf feeding management practices on California dairies

Are we sure unpasteurized waste milk is safe for our youngest calves? Quality of commercial milk replacers is also important to consider. Calf raisers should critically evaluate the formulation most appropriate for their calves, keeping in mind that cows’ milk is about 27 to 30 percent protein on a dry matter basis and a calf will suckle about five times per day given the choice.

It’s worth evaluating if a higher-protein replacer or adding a third feeding would be beneficial to your calves.


Keeping calves in a comfortable environment sets them up to be successful by reducing their exposure to pathogens. Wet and dirty bedding harbors a plethora of disease-causing organisms, and the more diseases a calf has to fight off, the fewer energy reserves she has to dedicate to growth and production.


A wide range of individual calf housing systems are used throughout the state, and each dairy should select the most effective and efficient model for their operations and manage it well.

Make accommodations as needed by age or season to provide the best environment for the calf at a particular time. For example, housing that allows cooling airflow in the summer may need to be generously bedded in the winter to maintain positive energy balance.

In our northern California study, we observed an increased prevalence of respiratory disease in group-housed preweaned calves. Each additional calf in a pen was associated with an 8 percent increase in bovine respiratory disease. Group housing can be an effective system for preweaned calves, but our data indicate that animal health should be closely watched.

While we don’t see immediate economic return from preweaned calves, they truly are the future of our herds, and we can be confident that quality calf management will eventually pay dividends.

As we increasingly understand the potential of these young herd members using genomic data, it becomes even more important to invest in their success from the get-go. It is an investment that will surely pay off down the road.  PD

Betsy Karle
  • Betsy Karle

  • UC Cooperative Extension
  • Dairy Adviser – Northern Sacramento Valley
  • Email Betsy Karle