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Management insights for calf and heifer wellness

Robert Lynch Published on 09 August 2013

Good calf and heifer management is essential for any dairy or heifer-growing operation. Everything producers and calf growers do, from colostrum to calving, affects the health of their heifers along with the bottom line of their business.

Calf and heifer management is time-consuming and expensive, and there’s only a small window of opportunity to get it right. That’s why it’s vital to do the right things to minimize disease and promote overall calf and heifer wellness.



The latest survey of U.S. dairy heifer-growing operations provides insight on calf and heifer management. The results offer some key takeaways all producers and growers should consider when raising heifers to ensure they will reach their full lifetime productivity.

Respiratory disease
The effects of respiratory disease are wide-ranging and long-lasting. Research shows that calves which develop pneumonia in the first three months of life are more likely to:

• Experience significantly increased mortality

• Have reduced average daily gain

• Calve later than unaffected herdmates


• Produce less milk in their first lactation

The data: The USDA’s National Animal Health Monitoring System (NAHMS) Dairy Heifer Raiser 2011 study puts numbers to the concern about respiratory disease. Scours and pneumonia were the leading causes of disease in pre-weaned calves, according to the study.

About 18.1 percent of pre-weaned calves were infected with pneumonia. This exceeds the Dairy Calf & Heifer Association Gold Standards benchmark of 15 percent.

For post-weaned heifers, respiratory disease was the most common disorder, with the study showing 11.2 percent of post-weaned heifers affected. In addition, pneumonia was the leading cause of death in both pre-weaned calves and post-weaned heifers.

Of the pre-weaned calves and post-weaned heifers infected with pneumonia, 90.2 percent of pre-weaned calves and 97.6 percent of post-weaned heifers received treatment.

Related to disease treatment, the majority of calf and heifer-growing operations (90.5 percent) selected therapies based on previous success. Meanwhile, 70.5 percent of operations made treatment decisions recommended by veterinarians.


The takeaway: While the study data underscores the clear and present threat of respiratory disease, it also serves as an important reminder to producers and growers to involve their herd veterinarian.

According to the study, veterinarians were used weekly or monthly by more than 75 percent of operations. Veterinarian involvement is especially critical for disease prevention. Veterinarians can help producers and growers:

• Develop and assess disease management protocols for identification and treatment

• Use expertise and culture data to confirm diagnosis

• Determine the appropriate antibiotic control strategy

• Provide product knowledge for disease treatment

Raising calves and heifers requires time and attention. If you don’t pay attention to details, it will show in calf and heifer growth performance and productivity. Here are additional management details producers should focus on:

Colostrum management
Newborn calves require high-quality colostrum within the first two hours of life to acquire protective antibodies to help build their immune systems.

The data: All operations reported that colostrum was administered at the dairy, according to the NAHMS Dairy Heifer Raiser study. About 40 percent of heifer-growing operations routinely measured serum proteins of newborn calves either upon arrival at the operation or just prior.

The takeaway: Measuring serum proteins in calves less than a week old can provide a wealth of information on passive transfer. Without successful passive transfer, newborn calves won’t receive the level of protective antibodies needed to help protect them from disease. In addition to measuring serum proteins:

• Collect colostrum from healthy cows and make sure colostrum is free of blood and debris.

• Feed colostrum (4 quarts for Holsteins calves) within two hours of birth.

Air quality is vital to calf and heifer health. Poor air quality can contribute to respiratory disease.

The data: In 47.3 percent of operations with heifers housed inside, only natural ventilation (open sidewalls, doors, windows) was used. Meanwhile, about 40.9 percent of operations used a combination of natural ventilation and mechanical ventilation (fans, forced air) and 11.8 percent used only mechanical ventilation.

The takeaway: Calves housed indoors require ventilation, which is a regular exchange of old air with fresh outside air. Most of the time proper mechanical ventilation is needed.

Proper ventilation is necessary for minimizing the transmission of airborne pathogens and eliminating harmful odors. In addition, be sure calves are protected from drafts.

Record-keeping is a vital step for implementing calf and heifer management protocols. Detailed record-keeping is essential for communicating observations and events with managers, employees and customers.

The data: Nearly 70 percent of operations recorded individual treatments administered to sick dairy heifers.

The takeaway: Without accurate records, it’s difficult to identify the origin of potential disease challenges in order to determine the correct resolutions.

Recording treatments also helps ensure that a heifer is receiving the appropriate dosage according to product label for effective treatment and residue prevention.

Calf and heifer management is one of the most important responsibilities on a dairy or heifer-growing operation.

From pre-weaned calves to breeding-age heifers, each life stage presents a small window of opportunity to help ensure calf and heifer wellness and help them reach their full lifetime productivity. PD

Lynch has a DVM degree from Tufts University and is employed by Zoetis as a cattle technical service veterinarian based in Pennsylvania.

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


Robert Lynch
Senior Veterinarian