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Establishing on-farm protocols

Stephen Hayes Published on 22 August 2014

It happens. Good intentions with good directions fall apart with poor implementation or misunderstanding. Colostrum did not get fed. The calf hutch did not get cleaned.

Feed was late getting delivered. It just happens. The use of on-farm protocols is one way to help managers and employees get jobs done correctly, on time, the same way, every time.



A protocol is a series of steps that is to be followed every time a certain task is to be done. A protocol can be written for anything from milking a cow to mixing a milk replacer.

What are the keys to making a protocol successful?

  • Write it down. A protocol should be written down because then the steps are fully defined. If the protocol is not completely written down, the implementation of the protocol will change over time – guaranteed. Another reason to write it down is so your advisers can review it and change it if needed.
  • Example: If you have a vaccine schedule that is written down and followed, you can easily pull the protocol out to discuss with your veterinarian, the university extension staff or a vaccine company technical services rep who thinks they have a better product. Any discussion on this protocol will be much more productive if you have a document people can review and make suggestions with.
  • Make it simple to follow. Do not get complicated when designing a protocol. Use pictures if possible. Pictures are universal and cross all languages and cultures. It is important to design the protocol as though someone is very busy and does not have more than three minutes to read and comprehend the protocol. Seldom should a protocol involve more than one page.
  • Use the appropriate language. The obvious part of this is if someone speaks Spanish, put the protocol in Spanish. In addition, make sure the words used are easy to understand and the terms do not get complicated.
  • Example: If discussing calving time, do not use words like dystocia, since it may not be understood by those needing to follow it.
  • Monitor the protocol whenever possible. There is a saying, “you cannot manage what you cannot measure.” This is the part of monitoring a protocol that really drives the point home.
  • Example: A colostrum-feeding protocol can be monitored by measuring serum proteins on 1-day-old to 2-day-old calves. If the serum proteins are no longer meeting a cut point value, then go back and review the colostrum-feeding protocol.

Now that we know what makes a protocol successful, how many protocols should there be on an operation? There is no set number, but when working with a calf operation, I prefer to see at least the following protocols in place and written down.

  • Newborn calf management (what to do with a newborn calf)
  • This would include removing the calf from the cow, dipping the navel, ear tags, feeding of a high-quality colostrum and placement of the calf to avoid cold or heat stress.
  • Colostrum collection and storage
  • Milk mixing and feeding system
  • This includes type of milk being fed, solids percentage, feeding rates per calf per feeding
  • Starter grain system along with water feeding
  • Includes when grain is fed, how often buckets are to be cleaned out, when to increase levels fed and levels of nutrients present in the starter grain
  • Also includes details of when water will be offered to calves and how much they will get
  • Weaning and transition pen
  • Includes when milk is reduced, when calves are moved, what their dry feed is and when it will change to a grower mix, and when forage will be introduced
  • Treatment protocol for sick calves
  • This will involve what the symptoms are for disease and what drugs or procedures will be used to treat the calf
  • Vaccine and processing schedule
  • This will involve what vaccines are given to what age of calf and how they are to be given (SubQ, Intranasal, etc.). Also included is when calves are to be dehorned or castrated, weaned and moved. By putting all of this on one page, all of the stresses and shots given to a calf can be evaluated quickly.

An example protocol for a dairy that wants to feed colostrum to a calf would be as follows:

Colostrum collection, storage and feeding (for a dairy that collects and feeds colostrum right away):


  • Collect colostrum from cow within two hours of the cow giving birth
  • Do this in a clean, disinfected bucket
  • Pour colostrum into a clean and disinfected 2-quart or 4-quart container
  • With colostrum fully mixed (no separation of fluid), take four drops of colostrum and place on a BRIX refractometer for reading
  • Based on the refractometer reading (see Table 1 )
  • If no colostrum is available for first feeding, use a colostrum replacer (give the name of the product here)
  • Feed newborn calf 1 gallon of 105°F good colostrum or a colostrum replacer immediately
  • If calf is less than 70 pounds, feed 3 quarts of good colostrum or colostrum replacer
  • Record information on a newborn calf information sheet
  • Refrigerate or freeze any leftover colostrum immediately in a fully marked 2-quart container with Brix reading and date of collection

Dairy colostrum protocols

Protocols that can be followed every time by every worker are not easy to develop. It can take several tries to make a good protocol.

Work with your employees to make sure the protocols are easily understood and that they make sense. Work with your advisers and support people to help fine-tune your protocols to get the benefit of a consistent, proper task being done every time. PD

More examples of downloadable protocols and calf-raising advice can be found on the Lifeline website in the “Calf – Resources” section or at the Calves with Sam blog .

Another good resource is on the Penn State Extension website .

The above links should be able to get you started on making protocols for your operation.


Stephen Hayes is a veterinary consultant with Day 1 Technology, based in Winona, Minnesota.

steve hayes

Stephen Hayes
DAY 1 Technology, LLC