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Prevent pre-weaning problems with proactive planning

Contributed by Theresa L. Ollivett Published on 18 January 2016

Dairy calves are the future of your herd. In addition to excellent nutrition, high-quality facilities and veterinary care, give calves the greatest opportunity to meet their future potential by having the infrastructure necessary for employees to perform up to their potential.

This begins with hiring enough help and implementing a plan for training overseeing records and documenting events and observations. At no time is this more important than during a complete change in management style or an expansion.



Caring for a large number of calves can be overwhelming, especially in group housing, when evaluation and handling of individual calves can be much more difficult.

Whether you are currently planning a transition in management or not, consider the following simple principles to foster a team environment and minimize disruptions in calf health:

  • Hire enough people
  • Maintain open lines of communication
  • Train and retrain regularly
  • Avoid assumptions

According to a survey of tiestalls, freestalls and calf raisers in Wisconsin, the number of employees needed for the daily chores (feeding, watering, daily bedding) varies greatly. In tiestall and freestall herds, one employee working an eight-hour day handles approximately 60 to 65 pre-weaned calves.

Employees at a calf ranch handle about three times that, or 180 calves, according to the 2013 Intuitive Cost of Production Analysis (UW Extension). These estimates do not account for the labor needed for weekly chores (i.e., cleaning calf pens, moving groups of calves) or health.

On average, half of a full-time equivalent is needed to provide health care for every 100 pre-weaned calves.


Figure out the size of your pre-weaned calf population and how many additional people you need if you are currently short-staffed. Think carefully about the characteristics of your job applicants and look for individuals demonstrating attention to detail, a strong work ethic and the desire to be part of a team.

Also, as I was recently reminded by a New York dairy producer, some individuals simply do not enjoy working with calves. Young calves do occasionally test our patience more than adult cattle. Discuss preferences with your applicants and prioritize those individuals with a desire to work with calves.

Raising healthy calves in large numbers or in indoor facilities requires extra effort and demands consistency, competency and compliance. Do not start behind the eight ball by hiring the wrong people or overloading your employees.

After assessing the foundation of your calf management team, consider all of the work associated with each calf between birth and weaning. Calves have to be processed (colostrum, ear tag, etc.) and physically moved to pre-weaned housing, where they are fed, watered, cleaned and treated when sick.

List all potential roles (feeder, cleaner, calf-side personnel, etc.) and assign specific tasks to each role. This list should form the basis of your communication, training, recording and oversight. Your list might look something like this:

  • Collect colostrum (milker)

  • Check colostrum quality and store (maternity staff)

  • Process newborns (feed colostrum, ear tag, ± vaccinate) (maternity staff)

  • Move calves to pre-weaned housing (maternity staff)

  • Prepare milk or replacer (feeder)

  • Feed milk or replacer (feeder)

  • Clean and disinfect feeding equipment (feeder)

  • Clean and disinfect pen for new calves (cleaner)

  • Bed pens for new calves (barn cleaner)

  • Dehorn, castrate, vaccinate (calf-side personnel)

  • Find sick calves (calf-side personnel)

  • Treat sick calves (calf-side personnel)

  • Data entry (calf-side personnel)

Assign each employee to a role – realizing that, depending on herd size, one person may have multiple roles. Write out the expectations for each role and who is responsible for training that person on the dairy’s protocols.


During training, discuss expectations and confirm that each person can do the work satisfactorily. Ensure a safe environment for the employee and encourage them to voice any questions and to report any mistakes. If they are documenting any information, confirm that they know exactly how to record their findings.

Afterwards, avoid making assumptions; have employees sign off that they have been trained and understand the expectations associated with their role.

The next step is to capture calf information in treatment logs and permanent records and review them regularly. Treatment logs that include calf ID, reason for treatment, drug name, dose, route, duration, frequency, withdrawal and initials of the person administering the treatment not only meet regulatory guidelines for prescription drug use; they help demonstrate how effective training was and if protocol drift has occurred.

Permanent records include additional information such as live or dead status and the dates and names of all events for that animal, which also helps find protocol drift and inadequate training. Empower employees by sharing both positive and negative results and plan additional training sessions when necessary after records have been reviewed.

Transition to the new management system as smoothly as possible by organizing the necessary infrastructure for your employees and following through with these few basic principles. Most importantly, be proactive and decide who will carry out this job if you do not want that role.  PD

This article was originally written by the author for Agri-Plastics.

Theresa L. Ollivett
  • Theresa L. Ollivett

  • Assistant Professor
  • Food Animal Production Medicine
  • University of Wisconsin – Madison School of Veterinary Medicine
  • Email Theresa L. Ollivett