Team up to tackle these seven areas of calf care

Jodi Wallace for Progressive Dairyman Published on 18 January 2017
The first feeding of colostrum needs to be fed as soon as possible

The calves you are raising today represent the future of your herd. “It takes a community to raise a child.” The same holds true for raising a calf.

It is best to embrace the knowledge and experience from trusted people and professionals that surround you. Veterinarians, nutritionists and other specialized dairy advisers can offer guidance to optimize your calf-raising program.

As veterinarians, we are health professionals. Our focus is to help you maintain optimal herd health. Young calves have fragile immune systems and should be given top priority on the farm. The key to calf health is attention to detail and consistency.

This can be achieved if all procedures are written down into protocols, which allows everyone working with the calves to have a consistent approach.

The basic objectives for calf health (zero to 60 days) are: mortality rates less than 5 percent (or ideally zero), low treatment rates less than 15 percent and accelerated growth (double birthweight in 60 days). Review the following seven points with your veterinarian to identify any area that would benefit the most from a more detailed approach.

1. Transition cow health

First, focus on your transition cows. Healthy calves start with healthy cows. The dry cow needs to have a stress-free life where she can focus on growing the calf in utero and making quality colostrum. The calving area needs to be clean, dry and well ventilated.

Preventative actions need to be made to avoid metabolic and other diseases (milk fever, retained placenta, ketosis, displaced abomasum, mastitis and lameness).

2. Calving

The goal is to have every calf arrive alive. Train all personnel to the stages of calving and proper techniques, and establish protocols to know when to assist or not assist and when to call for help with a difficult calving.

3. Colostrum management

The importance of colostrum cannot be emphasized enough. Key factors in colostrum feeding are quality, quantity, timing and cleanliness. As soon as possible after birth, the calf needs 4 quarts of clean, high-quality colostrum.

Proper colostrum management helps prevent illness. Research shows calves that receive adequate colostrum (have passive transfer of antibodies) have higher average daily gains, improved health pre- and post-weaning and higher milk production in their first lactation than calves that did not receive enough colostrum.

That’s right; what you do in the first few hours of the calf’s life affects its entire life.

Every farm should be equipped to measure colostrum quality. A colostrometer or a Brix refractometer can be used. (I prefer using the Brix.)

brix refractometerOnly excellent-quality colostrum should be fed-green using the colostrometer or more than 22 percent on the refractometer. A reading of 22 percent on the refractometer corresponds to 50 grams per deciliter IgG (immunoglobulins or type of antibody).

The first feeding of colostrum needs to be fed as soon as possible. Ideally, feed 10 to 20 percent of bodyweight within the first eight hours of life.

In my experience, calves are born hungry and should be fed by bottle before they can even stand. After 12 hours, only 50 percent of colostral antibodies are absorbed by the intestines. For example, a 99-pound calf will need 4.8 quarts in less than eight hours (in two feedings).

Finally, it is important that the colostrum is high quality. Quality also means disease-free. It is possible to freeze colostrum from adult cows free of disease (leucosis, Staph. aureus, paratuberculose, mycoplasma, BVD) in small packages (2 quarts), which are easy to thaw into warm water.

The second and third feeding should also be colostrum. Colostrum cleanliness is key for proper absorption. Colostrum samples can also be tested for total bacteria. Colostrum should contain less than 10,000 colony-forming units per milliliter of total bacteria and zero coliforms.

Finally, your veterinarian can help you measure the effectiveness of your colostrum management by quantifying the passive transfer of antibodies.

Measuring blood serum total proteins from calves 1 to 7 days old can indicate if enough colostral antibodies were absorbed. More than 85 percent of calves should have successful passive transfer. This monitoring step can be incorporated into your routine herd health visits.

4. Calf processing

It is important to establish basic handling protocols after the birth of the calf. These may include navel dipping, drying or warming the calf, transfer to calf area, tagging, vaccinating, genomic testing or other interventions.

These tasks are easier to remember by creating calf cards with a checklist outlining each step. Including data about calving assistance, colostrum quality, timing of quarts fed and initials of the person completing that task makes calf cards more complete and helps identify high-risk calves.

5. Feeding milk

After colostrum, you need to focus on feeding milk or milk replacer to achieve optimal average daily gains to target ideal breeding weight and size. Ideally, calves need to double their birthweight by 60 days.

Simply said, feed more milk, ideally 20 percent of the calf’s bodyweight in milk. Another consideration is to increase calories by feeding three times a day or free-choice milk.

A common complaint I often hear is, “My calves get diarrhea when I do that.” If your calves get sick by feeding more milk, then something is wrong. Check the bacteria levels in the milk. Has the milk been sitting out, allowing bacteria to multiply?

Is the feeding equipment squeaky clean? Are you mixing the milk replacer properly, at the right concentration and temperature? The refractometer can also be used to evaluate the total solids in milk. Whole milk needs to be 12.5 percent solids.

Work with your veterinarian and nutritionist to determine the dietary needs of your calves.

6. Housing

Housing in the first 60 days is also very important. Calves are very susceptible to disease since their immune system is not yet fully developed. Focus on keeping the calves clean and dry (calves will spend 80 percent of the day lying down).

Do this simple test: Would you lie down where the calves are? If you wouldn’t, chances are calves aren’t happy there either.

Ventilation is important to prevent respiratory disease. Lots of fresh, draft-free air is a must. Consider raising calves in pairs and small groups, as it has been demonstrated to be beneficial to their development.

Providing free-choice water and grain is also an essential part to ensure rapid growth. Tour your calf facilities with your vet to identify any opportunities for improvements.

7. Record health data

In order to monitor the health of the calves, data needs to be entered and evaluated on a periodic basis. Recording diseases such as diarrhea and pneumonia as well as treatments is key to understanding the epidemiology of disease on the farm.

Data needs to be recorded where it can easily be analyzed. Computer programs and dairy herd management software can easily monitor health events.

In conclusion, we have only just scratched the surface with the basic steps required to achieve optimal calf health and future profitability. Raising calves is a team event. Establishing protocols and training everyone involved in calf care are the keys to success.

Remember to continue to focus on the details of daily tasks and monitor the entire process through data analysis (colostrum quality testing, monitoring passive transfer, average daily gains, disease events and treatment rates).

Be sure to discuss this article with your veterinarian and other dairy advisers to identify aspects that optimize health and growth to allow your calves to reach their genetic potential.  end mark

PHOTO 1: The first feeding of colostrum needs to be fed as soon as possible. Ideally, feed 10 to 20 percent of bodyweight within the first eight hours of life. 

PHOTO 2: Excellent-quality colostrum will read 22 percent or higher on a Brix refractometer. Photos by Jodi Wallace.

Jodi Wallace
  • Jodi Wallace

  • Veterinarian
  • Ormstown Veterinary Hospital
  • Email Jodi Wallace

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