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Roundtable: Lessons of calf and heifer wellness

PD Staff Published on 17 January 2014

Two years – it sounds like a lot of time. But when it comes to raising heifers, two years is a small window of opportunity to do all the little things right.

In this roundtable, four calf and heifer raisers share their approaches to nutrition, disease management, reproduction, genetics and labor. They also provide insights on the lessons that have shaped their programs, from colostrum to calving, for supporting overall calf and heifer wellness.



Sarah Storm

Sarah Storm, DVM
Owner – Calf and Heifer Program Manager
Six years of experience
Storm’s Oasis Dairy in Fallon, Nevada
Raises 2,600 heifers from newborn to 6 months

Randy Haile

Randy Haile
Assistant Manager
20 years of experience
Foster Dairy Farms in Hickman, California
Raises 6,000 heifers from newborn to prefreshening

Andres Leon


Andres Leon
Calf and Heifer Supervisor
10 years of experience
PH Ranch in Winton, California
Raises 1,500 heifers from newborn to breeding-age

Greg Moes

Greg Moes
Co-owner – Calf and Heifer Program Manager
22 years of experience
MoDak Dairy Inc. in Goodwin, South Dakota
Raises 1,800 heifers from newborn to weaned and then from prebreeding to prefreshening


How do you ensure a healthy start for your calves?

Leon: For us, it starts when the cows go dry. We focus on providing good nutrition, a good vaccine program and a stress-free dry period. In our maternity area, our guys are monitoring pens 24-7. We make sure there is plenty of clean, dry bedding. We preach the importance of colostrum to our employees. All newborn calves are fed a gallon of good colostrum within an hour of birth.


Storm: Over the last six years, we’ve learned that proper colostrum handling is a big deal. Our calves receive fresh colostrum collected from the dairy. We don’t save or freeze colostrum anymore. There was too much room for error during the thawing process. We tube-feed all colostrum using clean tubes. We change the tubes on our esophageal feeders every week.

Haile: We start with the health of our pre-fresh cows. We monitor dry matter intake. We also monitor their urine pH to make sure rations are working. In addition, we watch cows for any post-calving problems. It’s important to us to keep our cows healthy at all times so they’re healthy at calving.

As for our newborn calves, they get two bottles of colostrum within an hour of birth. All colostrum is tested and scored when collected. From there, we cool it and test it again the next day. Only high-quality colostrum is kept.

We pasteurize and add potassium sorbate to the colostrum before we refrigerate it. This makes us comfortable to refrigerate colostrum for up to a week. We also require the pasteurization date to be written on the bottle the colostrum is stored in.

When the colostrum is fed, employees have to fill out a “first-feeding slip” for each calf they feed colostrum to. They have to record the pasteurization date on the bottle along with the date and time the calf was fed.

Moes: It starts with the cow. We practice whole-herd vaccination. Our dry cows in the close-up pen get an intranasal BRSV vaccination. Just before dry-off, we vaccinate cows to help protect their calves from scours. At dry-off, in addition to dry cow tubes and teat sealant, cows are vaccinated to help protect them from E. coli mastitis and to help prevent Clostridium.

As for the calves, what happens in the first two hours of their lives impacts them for the rest of their lives. Newborn calves are fed 5 quarts of pasteurized colostrum at birth. We test colostrum with a refractometer.

Everything with a score of 23 or above is fed. We used to test our colostrum in batches, but now we test colostrum from each cow separately. We also wash our fresh-cow buckets with hot, soapy water in between cows to help reduce bacteria.


Nutrition can make or break the first 120 days of life. Tell us about your feeding program and why nutrition matters.

Storm: Our newborn to 3-week-old calves are fed whole milk three times per day. The milk comes right from the bulk tank. We regularly run plates on our milk, and we don’t have a ton of mastitis, so we know the calves are receiving quality milk.

Our effort to observe milk quality in the parlor really makes a big difference for our calves. Nutrition is the basic building block for calves. They’re not going to get sick. They’re gaining weight. They’re growing better and they’re breeding earlier.

Haile: All fresh-cow milk pumps into a separate bulk tank that’s used for feeding calves. We pool and pasteurize the milk. For the first 30 days, calves are fed pasteurized whole milk three times per day. At a month, we switch calves to two milk feedings a day. They also receive fresh calf grain every day and fresh water. Basically, nutrition is the driver of the whole thing. We’ve got to get them eating in order to get them growing.

Moes: Our pre-weaned calves are fed a gallon of whole milk twice a day. They’re also fed a complete pellet that was specially formulated for our farm. They’re on the same feed at post-weaning, so there isn’t much difficulty with transitioning between feed.

On this diet, we’re currently experiencing an average daily gain of 2 pounds per day, and we’re working toward 2.5 pounds. We used to push growth on the cows. We wanted to get them milking and then start feeding them.

We’ve learned that we need to focus on the calves. A good feeding program gets them healthy and makes disease management a lot easier. Healthy, well-fed calves don’t get sick.

Leon: Nutrition is fundamental, especially for younger calves. It does a lot for performance once they reach the milking parlor. Our calves are fed bottles of powder milk, grain and water twice a day, starting on day one.

We mix powder milk with whole milk to help increase solids. We use a refractometer to measure solids. It’s also important that calves have water at all times. Water gets them started on calf grain. We review our feeding programs with our nutritionist every month. He lets us know if something doesn’t look right.


Disease challenges early in life can hurt lifetime productivity. What disease management measures do you take to help protect your heifers?

Storm: Our disease management philosophy is that it’s easier to try to prevent than treat because catching up is hard. We vaccinate every calf intranasally at birth and again at 5 weeks. We power-wash hutches and coat them with a lime solution.

We also move the entire line of clean hutches so they’re on fresh ground. I also do daily walkthroughs to look at all of the calves. I start with the youngest and work my way to the older heifers. I watch for diarrhea, if calves don’t drink milk, how they’re suckling the bottle, their breathing and if they look dehydrated or depressed.

Each calf has a health card with their hutch where employees can track treatments and observations. We use tulathromycin on our weaned heifers younger than 20 months of age before grouping them into corrals.

Haile: We stress sanitation. Pens are cleaned the day of move-out. Boards are washed and sanitized with ample air-out time. We sanitize the pen area again just before a new group moves in. We review our vaccination and treatment protocols with our veterinarian to make sure they provide thorough protection and are in line.

All dead calves are necropsied so we can diagnose health challenges. Our calf feeders observe calves for symptoms. We keep track of that information on the computer. This way, if there is a health problem, we can try to go back and pinpoint the cause and find out if it’s exclusive to a particular dairy, esophageal feeder or a calf’s health history.

Moes: Our disease management philosophy starts with colostrum. When we experienced a salmonella outbreak, we went through our colostrum-feeding program. We tested the colostrum and found high bacteria counts.

We used to refrigerate colostrum but found that it took our refrigerator two days to cool the colostrum, creating a hotbed of bacteria growth. We also learned we needed to do a better job of cleaning our fresh-cow buckets.

Our calf feeders examine each calf. They look for runny noses and watery eyes. They listen for coughs and take their temperature if any symptoms appear. We track disease symptoms and treatments used in our herd software program. And we necropsy all dead calves to know what we have.

Leon: Prevention is critical, especially when managing a big herd. Vaccination is important. We work with our veterinarian to develop a whole-herd vaccination program. At birth, our calves receive an intranasal vaccine.

We do daily assessments of all calves. One employee is assigned to keep daily treatment records, including what symptoms the calf is being treated for and what drugs were used. Our veterinarian also does a weekly health assessment of the calves.


Reproduction is the last investment phase of your calf and heifer management program. How do you manage heifer reproduction to help heifers realize their potential?

Moes: We’re currently at 120 percent for heifer replacements, so we must be doing something right. Genex handles our whole reproduction program. We rely on our technicians’ trained eyes to help us sort heifers based on reproductive performance. They set the breeding criteria. The top 30 percent get sexed semen. The bottom 30 percent are bred to a beef bull. We started using genomics last fall to help us sort off pre-bred heifers.

Leon: An A.I. technician does all of the breeding and monitors heats using tail chalk and daily observations. We aim to breed heifers at 13 months old. We want our breeding-age heifers to be 51 inches at the withers and between 825 to 850 pounds. About six years ago, our breeding-age heifers were too skinny to breed at 14 months.

Since then, we’ve worked to lower our breeding age. We do some synchronization if heifers aren’t bred by 14 months and use prostaglandin to help bring them into estrus. We also started using genomics about a year ago. This has helped us with mating and sexed-semen selections.


Without trained and engaged employees, your management program will struggle. How do you ensure good labor to support your calf and heifer program?

Storm: Labor is vital. My employees are responsible for all calf-management responsibilities, including feeding and treating calves. Communication is critical. I check in with them often and ask them how they’re doing things and why. I also like to get them involved in diagnostic work.

When we necropsy calves, I have them watch so I can show my employees what we’re looking for so they can see how what they do impacts calf health. We take care of the calves the same way every day. This helps make sure that my employees are doing the same things the same way every day.

Moes: We encourage our employees to participate in a variety of training programs, such as one-on-one training with our veterinarian or training with our nutrition company. The biggest thing is to make sure there are enough people to do the work. Don’t give employees an opportunity to shortcut. Hire people who know calves and care about calves.

Haile: We have found great success in giving information back to our employees about the progress of our calf and heifer program. New employees train with more experienced employees, and they’re trained in all areas of the calf and heifer program. They also work with the supervisor to discuss and understand expectations.


From colostrum to calving, your calf and heifer program helps put your herd on the path to achieve lifetime performance. How do you benchmark the success of your program?

Storm: We keep track of death loss – how many dead calves and what they died from – as a means of measuring the success of our calf program. We necropsy all dead calves, which provides so much information about calf health. We examine the lungs. We look at the intestines for infection or discoloration and check the size of organs. Also, we examine the umbilicus, ligaments, liver and bladder.

Haile: We examine growth and development at every life stage, from newborn to weaning to breeding-age heifers. Our nutritionist does a monthly walk-through of all of our heifers to make sure they’re growing well. We keep a close tab on death loss.

We share this information with our employees during our monthly safety meetings. The spreadsheet we give them includes five years of data and compares this data month-to-month. Our employees know our goals, so they’re eager to see how they’re doing.

Moes: We tape calves at birth and then capture weights at weaning and breeding. We’ve been happy with 1 to 2 pounds of average daily gain from birth to weaning, but now we’re striving for 2.5 pounds of gain.

Our calving age used to be 26 months. But because our heifers have been growing so well, we’ve started breeding them earlier and were able to lower our average calving age to 24 months.

Leon: We keep track of growth by capturing weight gain. We also monitor death loss by age group and review with our employees monthly. The number of replacement heifers coming into the milking herd is also a good indication of the success of our program.


What advice can you offer other calf and heifer raisers?

Storm: You have to feed good-quality colostrum. Also, if you encounter scours or pneumonia, try to figure out what has changed in your day-to-day calf care that could have helped trigger the outbreak. Has the quality of colostrum changed? Is it being fed differently? Go out and see what’s being done. Don’t assume something is being done correctly or that protocols are being followed.

Haile: If you had to choose one area of calf management to invest in, invest in colostrum – it’s the biggest driver of everything you do for your calves.

Moes: Don’t be afraid to involve outside experts, such as your veterinarian, animal health company and nutritionist. They all look at things differently and can bring new perspectives and expertise when it comes to calf management. Work with your veterinarian to establish a vaccination program that’s right for your farm. And make sure everyone is administering that vaccination program according to protocol.

Leon: Feed good-quality colostrum, make sure your employees are communicating with you and keep good written protocols and records. PD

—From Zoetis