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Labor efficiency and effectiveness for the calf enterprise

Robert E. James for Progressive Dairyman Published on 24 August 2017

Dairy managers and consultants focus on feeding and managing the lactating and dry dairy herd. This is logical since mistakes become readily apparent in substantial lost income, increased expenses or poor use of resources. The primary focus is directed toward providing the resources and working environment.

This enables the labor assigned to feeding, milking and herd health the best opportunity for success. Too often, replacement heifer management is relegated to lower priority, as the impact on farm productivity may not be apparent for years. In addition, the most important characteristics for labor assigned to the calf enterprise may be quite different from other management areas of the farm.



There are no absolutes in achieving effectiveness and efficiency of the labor force assigned to the calf enterprise. Focus efforts for calf labor management in two general areas:

1. Create an environment that fosters excellent health and welfare of the dam and the calf. This enables the calf “herd” to achieve desired growth at a low cost per pound of gain and resistance to disease. Healthy calves substantially reduce labor required for caring for and treating sick calves.

2. Create an environment for the labor force that enables them to deliver desired nutrients accurately and precisely with minimum frustration in all weather conditions. Reduce work that involves the drudgery of cleaning feed utensils and pens, and enables them to focus on calf care.

Objectives, challenges and solutions for labor management of the calf enterprise should be focused in the following areas that have a strong impact on success. In nearly all cases, facilities should be designed, constructed and implemented which are well lit, drained and ventilated.

This enables timely observation and provides conditions conducive to good health. Mechanized cleaning of housing areas and feed utensils is essential.


Calving center

The objective is to facilitate observation without disturbing the parturient cow. An optimal environment should include excellent bedding that can be replaced between calvings and facilities for handling the cow during and after calving.

Other desirable features include facilities for milking the fresh cow on a timely basis, which may mean a remote milking facility or location of calving area adjacent to the milking facility used for the dairy herd. Common problems include:

  • Remote location of calving pens, which may be quiet, but requires transport of the cow and her calf to the lactating cow center and calf facility. This means more labor, stresses the cow and increases risk of injury and disease transfer if the trailer is used for other animals on the farm.

  • Facilities that cannot be mechanically cleaned and sanitized between calvings may be the source of early calfhood disease.

Poor sanitation and failure to provide timely consumption of clean, high-IgG colostrum means increased labor for postpartum disease treatment and the pre-weaned calf. Most colostrum management challenges can be traced to poorly designed facilities that make successful transfer of passive immunity difficult to achieve.

Pre-weaned calf management

A central location close to the calf housing for storage of calf feeds, drugs and necessary supplies protected from inclement weather and pests is necessary. Accommodations with hot water are required for mixing milk replacer, operating a waste milk pasteurizer, and cleaning of buckets or bottles.

Internet service can assist with record collection and transfer of information electronically to the farm office or other remote locations.

Pre-weaned calving systems should focus on ways to simplify and achieve labor effectiveness and efficiency in feeding and treating calves and cleaning facilities.


Individual hutches are the most common housing system and frequently the veterinarians’ choice. However, there are characteristics that make these systems quite labor- intensive and create an undesirable environment for workers during inclement weather.

Bottle-feeding systems can expedite delivery of the liquid diet and standardize the amount delivered when different-sized bottles are used. Bucket-feeding systems are usually slower, and unless metering devices are used, commonly result in inconsistent amounts of milk delivered to each calf. If feeding time exceeds 30 minutes, provisions must be made for milk agitation; otherwise pasteurized milk composition will vary.

Calf starter feeding can be problematic; however, some simple design considerations can expedite delivery. First, the starter container should be located where the feeder can access it without entering the pen or dealing with a hungry calf. It should also not be adjacent to the drinking water as each will become contaminated, which inhibits intake of either and requires more frequent cleaning.

Enclosed metal or plastic bins capable of holding several pounds of starter to protect it from weather can simplify feeding and reduce spoilage. Similarly, water containers should be large enough to provide a calf’s daily supply of clean water and not be contaminated with feed. The hutch site should be constructed to foster drainage of precipitation and calf wastes.

Individual pens located in an enclosed building encounter similar challenges and solutions. The greatest advantage may be more desirable working conditions. Professionally designed ventilation systems, which incorporate positive-pressure tubes, provide a constant supply of fresh air and are critical to respiratory disease control.

Removable dividers between pens can facilitate mechanized cleaning and permit housing of calves in small groups when necessary.

Group-housing systems are becoming more popular in dairy herds of all sizes. Mob feeders, acidified free-choice and computerized automatic calf-feeding systems enable delivery of milk or milk replacers to groups of calves more efficiently. In addition, they enable feeding more biologically normal amounts of milk to support desirable bodyweight gains.

Acidified systems use organic acids to reduce diet pH to a point where bacterial overgrowth is less problematic. The challenge of both of these systems is that it is difficult to estimate or control pre-weaned calf intake. In contrast, the automated systems are capable of delivering increased daily volumes of milk in smaller, more frequent meals, which have proven to foster greater feed efficiency.

Another considerable advantage of the automated systems is they provide data such as drinking speed, daily liquid feed intake and other behavioral data, which can be used to predict disease onset. Another advantage of these feeding systems is automated cleaning.

The dairy industry is well aware that securing dairy labor is likely to become more challenging in the future. Reductions in availability of immigrant labor and the competition for qualified employees will intensify. Feeding larger quantities of milk or milk replacer enables the calf to achieve growth goals, but requires more skilled calf management personnel for successful implementation.

Producers need to evaluate their current calf management system. Does it provide a desirable environment for the animals and deliver sufficient liquid feed to achieve growth goals of doubling their birthweight by 56 to 60 days of life?

Do the facilities provide an environment that minimizes “drudgery” work by employees and enables them to spend more time observing calves, or provide them with the resources for improved calf management? Many items discussed above involve application of some basic principles of facility design and management which, if implemented, can promote improved calf management personnel effectiveness and efficiency.  end mark

Robert E. James
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