Current Progressive Dairy digital edition

Managing calf health through nutrition

Jud Heinrichs Published on 11 January 2011

Calf health, as reflected in morbidity and mortality, is a consistent and major issue facing the dairy farmer. Data from Europe and the U.S. clearly show that dairy calf mortality remains above 5 to 8 percent year after year, representing a significant economic impact on the dairy farm economy.

Recent data from USDA:NAHMS put pre-weaned calf mortality at 7.8 percent in the U.S. (2007). In addition, morbidity remains high, which adds to the economic burden through added labor and health supply costs; over 50 percent of morbidity is related to neonatal scours.



When calf health is discussed, we must begin with the nutrition of the dam and the related influence on the body tissues of the calf at birth and the nutrient value of colostrum. Research has shown that various aspects related to dry cow nutrition can affect the calf at birth.

Most notably, minerals fed to dry cows such as selenium, copper and zinc can greatly influence the calf at birth, as well as colostrum. Health issues related to anemia and white muscle disease that were once common problems in newborn calves are rarely a problem now in well-managed farms due to dietary supplementation of the dry cow.

Higher levels of these minerals fed to the dry cow affects the calf tissue levels as well as colostrum.

An important calf health issue that also must be covered is colostrum management. There are many clear research publications showing the significant effects of timing, quality, and quantity of colostrum fed and its impacts on morbidity, mortality, growth, age at calving, and culling of dairy heifers.

Failure of passive transfer (FPT) of maternal immunoglobulins occurs in a high percentage of calves in the U.S. and other countries, due to the way colostrum feeding is managed on dairy farms. The correlation with mortality is very strong and this, along with morbidity, represents a serious economic loss to dairy farmers.


Recent studies show that colostrum, as fed on dairy farms, often is not adequate in immunoglobulin and nutrient levels; and is often high in bacteria, all of which need to be improved with management on the farm.

Methods to increase immunoglobulin levels in colostrum are limited due to the genetics of the cow (dam) and physiological conditions of the cow at calving time. Recent work has been done to improve immunoglobulin absorption by the small intestine of the newborn calf.

Heat-treating colostrum (60°C or 140°F for 30 minutes; not true pasteurization) is one of the methods demonstrated that significantly improves immunoglobulin absorption without increasing the viscosity of the colostrum or impacting the nutritional value.

Calf nutrition related to basic feeding also can be addressed in relation to health. Levels of nutrients and types of feeding systems impact health.

Feeding less than 10 percent of bodyweight (BW) per day of liquid feed will result in low rates of BW gain and, in situations with added stress, may predispose calves to increased morbidity.

Dietary supplements have been shown to impact calf health. In a non-antibiotic situation, many supplements have been tried with varying success. Oligosaccharides are one class of compounds that have been shown in many studies (not all) to positively affect calf health by reducing the incidence and severity of diarrhea in calves.


Some studies have also looked at herbs, yeasts, and probiotics such as lactobacillus fed to the calf diet to reduce scours. Coccidiostats are also important to feed to young calves in situations where this parasite is causing scours in young calves, which is very common.

In many respects, rumen development has a large impact on calf health as the physiology of the calf, with its esophageal groove allowing liquid feeds to pass directly into the abomasum, may impact digestive health. It is widely known that prior to weaning, calf morbidity and mortality attributed to diarrhea is great, yet post-weaning, both situations are greatly reduced.

Weaning age can therefore have a larger impact on health of the calf and should be optimized when appropriate. Most studies show no effect of weaning age on bodyweight or age at calving.

Nutrition has a great many effects on the health of the calf and improvements must be considered to reduce the high incidence of morbidity and mortality as found on dairy farms. PD

—Excerpts from Penn State University publication

Jud Heinrichs
Professor of Dairy & Animal Science
Penn State University