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Preparing for the best to avoid the worst when raising calves

Luke Miller for Progressive Dairy Published on 12 March 2021

Healthy calves and a successful group of youngstock teammates (employees) can set the tone for morale across the entire dairy. When the calves are happy, the owners are happy. Happy, healthy calves tend to transition into healthy springers and then into productive lactating cows.

The life of a healthy, productive cow begins in the hutch. Many times when we see problems in our calves, it translates into problems in our herd later. What action do most of us take when we are seeing problems? We jump into panic mode and take drastic action using reactionary management, knowing it is not the best mode of action. There are a few things we could do to be better prepared.



When things are going poorly, it is often attributed to the behavior or actions of our teammates. In many cases, they are barely equipped to handle the stress of a normal day in the life of a calf, let alone when problems are occurring. When we take a hard look at our calf training protocols and procedures, we must ask: Have we set our team up for success? Have we done our due diligence in making sure that when the “going gets tough,” our team members will know when, where and who to ask for assistance?

When I was in a management role, we would often see efficient teams and great team members get sucked into a vortex of problems. We would call this the Doom Spiral. For example, when there are sick calves and the efforts of the technicians immediately gravitate toward fixing sick calves, then the routine chores don’t get accomplished quite as well as before and cleanliness can be affected. We all know the importance of cleanliness in the calf area, and then we can end up with more sick calves. Then cleaning suffers further because the technicians have more important problems and now even more sick calves.

You get the picture; this gets ugly real fast and can be costly. It may cost us good technicians because the stress of work issues is just too great. It may cost us calves that die or need to be euthanized. It will most certainly cost us productive animals in the future. I am sure many of you can relate and wondered, “How did we get here, and how do we get out?”

The Doom Spiral can start from an innocuous beginning, such as seasonal extra calves, a change in procedure, the weather or an employee vacation. It doesn’t take much, but if the leader of your calf team is not comfortable reporting and handling the situation, it can become a catastrophe in a flash. At some point, managers need to step in, offer aid and stop the Doom Spiral before it starts, utilizing effective tools and providing proper training.

When faced with an ongoing problem on the calf ranch, sometimes the only tool you have is to send additional teammates to the rescue. These helpers do not have to be great calf technicians, but they can do the routine chores in the area to help alleviate the stress on the calf team. They can wash buckets, bottles, hutches and equipment or move calves. These are all chores that allow your calf technicians to apply their efforts where it is needed most without worrying that other chores are not getting done.


Another example would be changing the vaccination protocol to suit this new issue. Your veterinarian should be happy to get involved and to help troubleshoot. You may even need to alter housing on a short-time basis. These changes are not always pain-free, but they are better than the long-term damage of allowing the Doom Spiral to continue.

Our teams need to be set up for success. The best way to do this is by choosing the correct candidate and providing them in-depth training at the time of hire and following up with refresher trainings. The initial training needs to be detailed and well-designed by using all the resources at your disposal. Your veterinarian, nutritionist and management team should all be involved in this process. Everyone needs to be on the same page to ensure we attain our goals in raising calves. The protocols and procedures you design need to be clear and concise. They should always be easy to access and clearly displayed in the work area. Large posters in work areas show the team the way things should be done properly and leave no room for ambiguity.

We want to avoid “Training by the Transitive Principle,” such that technician A is trained correctly, then technician A trains technician B, technician B then trains technician C and so on. This method of training can cause protocol drift and procedural inaccuracy. The most important thing frequent retraining accomplishes is assuring our technicians that there is an open conduit of communication to management. When a technician knows how and who he can communicate with, they will feel comfortable letting you know when problems arise.

When I am asked to help producers design protocols for startups or redesign them due to a problem, the first question I ask is: “Who is your professional calf technician?” Without the abilities and attributes these key individuals bring to the table, the raising of calves can be a daunting task. These key players on your team are not necessarily born as great calf technicians, but you took the time and effort to train them and make sure they were equipped to handle the good, and the challenging, situations as a calf technician. Once we have established who this person is, or who it is going to be, they need to be supported with other well-trained technicians.

It is our responsibility to get the right people into the right roles with the right training. Remember, there are some technicians who may be excellent in parts of the operation but are in no way cut out to raise calves. This is not their fault or your fault, as calf raising is a very specific talent and there are some people whose value may be better used elsewhere within the operation.

Looking back, if you are having issues within your calf operation, they may not be entirely due to infectious disease or a facility issue. There may be an underlying labor issue. As we are building our teams, we need to ensure we can trust them to accomplish the tasks that are assigned. I was told once, “If you cannot trust your team, it is your fault on both accounts. You either hired the wrong people for the job or you have not trained them to do it correctly.” Until we have created great technicians and built quality teams by using clear communication and frequent training, we may never get out of the Doom Spiral.  end mark


PHOTO: Photo by Mike Dixon.

Luke Miller
  • Luke Miller

  • Dairy Technical Support Specialist
  • Alltech
  • Email Luke Miller