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The future of your dairy starts in the calving pen

Jorge Delgado Published on 26 November 2013


You selected the best bulls to ensure the future of your dairy, but what happens in the first hours when the calves are born is what really ensures their genetics will reach their full potential.



When was the last time you did a self-audit of your calving pen and reviewed the protocols for receiving newborns?

Here is a list every producer should check before calving season and on a regular basis.

Calving pens : How often are you disinfecting and cleaning your calving pens? Remember that this is going to be the first contact the newborn has in the new world. Bacteria can enter through the mouth, nose and umbilical cord of the calf at first contact with the surface. Replace bedding regularly and disinfect surfaces with chlorine dioxide after removing organic bedding. This will help break down readily inert materials and stop the most common bacterial disease cycles.


Calving pen log : Do you have a calving log spreadsheet where employees are recording every event that happens from the calving pen until the calf is born and processed? Starting at the point that the cow is moved into the calving pen, logging information is key and is frequently missed. This information helps the dairy team communicate better and make a more informed decision on when to assist a cow in labor, based on signs and timing. Here is an example of a calving log ( Table 1 ):


Assisting a cow in labor : It is also important to make sure you and your employees are following the correct protocols keeping the cow and calf clean, avoiding the introduction of any reproductive diseases or bacteria to the calf.

  • Keep a bucket with sanitizer and warm water to wash and disinfect the cow
  • Clean the vulva and perineum
  • Make sure that everything is clean
  • Always use breeding gloves
  • Work with the cow and give her time to push
  • Use plenty of lubrication


Protecting the navel : This is crucial to protect the newborn against infections, but what kind of tools are we using to do this? Post-dip or pre-dip cups are one of the tools used to protect the navel with iodine. How often they are cleaned or replaced? If you stick a finger inside of the cup and feel organic matter accumulating at the bottom ( see photo to the right ), this creates a home for bacteria, which defeats the purpose of the iodine and the concept of protecting the new calf against infections. It is recommended to use disposable paper liners inside the cup to avoid this and improve calf health.

Moving the newborn calf : What equipment is being used to move the calf out of the calving pen? How often are the moving carts cleaned and sanitized? Besides preventing infections, we need to reduce the calf’s exposure to surfaces with high bacterial populations. Use the same disinfection protocols on moving carts to minimize infections and improve general calf health.


Colostrum feeding : If the goal is to feed colostrum to calves in the first hour after they are born, dairy farms also need to keep track of this important information in their calving logs. It is easy to add this component to your calving log ( Table 2 ):


Colostrum storage : Are you making sure that the most important source of nutrients for the newborn calf is properly stored and collected? Use a different collection bucket for colostrum to prevent contamination and quality loss ( see photo at top of page ), resulting in poor intake. If you are storing colostrum, make sure storing surfaces are always clean. Bacteria present in these surfaces will attach to colostrum containers. The bacteria can then invade the calf digestive tract, decrease the quality of the colostrum and cause challenges for the calf.

The smallest changes on a dairy operation can make the most substantial difference, especially when looking at building a solid platform for a future of productivity and health for your newborn calves. These are some of the common mistakes dairy farms should address in order to maximize the potential of their calves and guarantee the success of their operations. A clean environment to receive the new calves, open communication with employees in charge of the calves and a constant supervision based on good protocols is essential for raising healthy calves. PD

Photos courtesy of Jorge Delgado.


Jorge Delgado
On-farm Program Support Manager