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Three areas of focus for raising newborn calves

Adriana Toste for Progressive Dairy Published on 19 May 2021

The future of a dairy farmer’s herd is dependent on the health and care calves receive as newborns. Ensuring a strong immune system buildup in the first few weeks of life is imperative to the animal’s longevity and overall herd success.

A webinar held by Penn State Extension featured Jud Heinrichs, professor of dairy nutrition at Penn State, and Cassie Yost, extension educator in Franklin County, Pennsylvania, where they discussed these topics and provided tips for maternity management during the newborn stage and feeding and housing calves.



Maternity management

There are factors a dairy farmer cannot control when a calf is born, however, the one thing they can control is the environment the calf is born into, Yost said. The area should be clean, dry, bedded and well maintained to ensure the calf’s immune system is not threatened during its beginning stages of life. Dipping navels is also an important practice to seal the entry way and eliminate the possibility of any bacteria entering the calf’s bloodstream. Using disposable cups to dip the calf’s navel is a new trend being used by dairy farmers. These disposable cups remove any possibility of transmission from calf to calf, while also making sure iodine is transferred up into the body wall. Yost said making iodine and disposable cups readily available near the maternity pen helps make dipping navels a habit instead of an afterthought.


Of all the elements associated with raising dairy calves, proper colostrum intake and rumen development are among the most important. Understanding how to balance liquid feed with solid feed is critical in rumen development, Heinrichs said. Some of the liquid options farmers can feed include waste milk, salable milk and milk replacer. Each has positives and negatives, though they all accomplish the same goal. For newborn calves, Heinrichs encouraged avoiding milk produced after a cow’s first antibiotic treatment and pasteurizing waste milk to eliminate different organisms. If a farmer chooses to feed waste milk without pasteurization, Heinrichs suggested having a conversation with the dairy veterinarian to make sure not pasteurizing is a wise decision based on the herd’s history of disease.

When considering different pasteurization methods, high-temperature short-time (HTST) pasteurization is most ideal because it heats milk to 161ºF for 15 seconds. This method is most comparable to what a milk plant would use, making it the most expensive option, so it is designed for larger-scale farms. Batch pasteurization is slower heating, but still a good option and the most realistic method for most dairies, Heinrichs said. Although UV pasteurization is the cheapest option of the three, Heinrichs said to avoid this method, as data shows it is not effective.

While feeding trends may differ for every operation, Heinrichs recommended limiting feeding to no more than two times per day. Data has shown feeding more than twice per day results in no growth differences, nor does it have any health benefits, and limiting feeding to only twice per day also reduces labor demands, he said. Feeding 5-6 quarts of milk per day is the most sufficient amount in order to not inhibit rumen and papillae development, Heinrichs said.

In the first few weeks of a young calf’s life, milk or milk replacer is digested in the abomasum, and as she nears weaning age and begins to consume more dry matter, her rumen starts functioning, and she begins absorbing nutrients into her bloodstream. As the calf takes in milk, casein from the milk forms a curd to ensure milkfat and protein are slowly digested. Once grain is added to her diet, the calf is essentially fed 24/7 from the curd and dry matter fermentation that’s happening.


Calf starter grain should be highly palatable and coarse to help with intake, Heinrichs said. This can be flaked, whole or in the form of pellets and should have an average of 18% crude protein and a starch level of 35% or greater, he said.

In most cases, if you feed a high level of milk, calves will consume a low level of grain, and vice versa, which is why ensuring a balance of the two is crucial. On average around the world, weaning age is 6 weeks, although in the U.S., most farmers wean at 8 weeks. In either circumstance, Heinrichs said farmers should reduce milk for five to seven days leading up to the calf’s wean date, and the rumen should be well-developed before the calf is weaned. This is done by feeding 1-2 pounds of grain each day for multiple days in order to train the calf and her digestive system. That amount should be kept consistent, and as the calf grows, grain intake should increase, Heinrichs said.

Calf housing

While housing differs from operation to operation, there are positives and negatives to both individual and group options. In the first few weeks of life, a calf’s immunity to pathogens comes primarily from colostrum, and it can’t produce its own antibodies until 5 to 6 weeks old. Because isolation usually results in reduced disease transfer from calf to calf, 85% of calves in the U.S. are housed individually, Heinrichs said. Individual housing usually also effects how closely the calf is being monitored. When a calf is alone, employees can vividly see if a calf is not feeling well or if it has gone off feed.

Group housing, on the other hand, can be especially useful for farmers trying to reduce labor, Heinrichs said. However, farmers always run the risk of compromised health when using group housing. When feeding in group-housing situations, the three most common methods are gang/mob feeders, ad-libitum feeders and automated systems. Gang/mob feeders work best with similarly aged calves and for once-a-day feedings, although individual average daily gain (ADG) may be affected because one calf may be slower at drinking than another, he said. Ad-libitum feeders are more ideal for indoor housing options and are designed to have multiple calves sucking at once. Many times, this system will need an acid added to the milk because of the possibility that it will sit outside for long periods of time during the summer, and sometimes this system may need to be heated during the winter, dependent on the environment. Automated calf feeding systems are designed to accommodate milk, milk replacer and even a variation of the two. A unique feature of this system is that it is programmed to the specific calf; however, it is critical to note that overpopulation is a large risk because each calf is using the same nipple, Heinrichs said.

In both of these housing options, environmental circumstances should be a significant point of focus for the farmer, Heinrichs said. Proper housing conditions ensure the calf is not exerting all its energy from milk and grain intake to maintain its body temperature. Preventative measures such as heat lamps, calf jackets and plentiful bedding work well. Analyzing a nesting score is also a useful tool, Yost said. When a calf is laying and its legs are entirely visible, the calf would have a nesting score of 1. A nesting score of 2 is when a calf’s legs are partially visible, and when a calf’s legs are not visible at all, the nesting score would be 3. Farmers should aim for a nesting score in between 2 and 3.

No matter what situation you are in, focusing on maternity management, feeding and calf housing are three important ways to ensure a strong and healthy start for dairy calves. The decisions farmers make in regard to these three areas can have lasting impacts and can be the determining factor in making or breaking one’s herd.  end mark


PHOTO: Photo by Mike Dixon.

Adriana Toste
  • Adriana Toste

  • Editorial Intern
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