Managing Calf Health
The nurturing of dairy calves from birth is critical to ensuring they grow to become healthy, productive members of the milking herd.
Colostrum is essential for all calves, including heifer replacements and sale calves. In the first 24 hours of a calf’s life, it provides valuable and essential antibodies that protect it from disease and death. Recommended colostrum management practices include:
- Colostrum is harvested as soon as possible after a cow has calved.
- Feed calves colostrum as soon as possible.
- Test colostrum quality using a Brix refractometer to assess antibody concentration before it is fed, stored or discarded.
- Each calf should be fed 2-4 litres of colostrum in the first 24 hours of life and preferably in the first 18 hours.
- Make sure colostrum is collected into clean collection containers.
- If storing colostrum, refrigerate or freeze quickly and avoid pooling from different cows.
- Potassium sorbate can be used to extend the ‘shelf life’ of refrigerated colostrum.
- Colostrum from the first milking post-calving and the transition milk from the next seven milkings post-calving must be excluded from the milk vat.
- Do not share feeding equipment between heifer replacements and sale calves (use separate, labelled feeding equipment for sale calves).
Follow these tips to ensure calves receive adequate nutrition pre-weaning:
- Provide access to fresh clean water from birth.
- Consistently feed milk at the same temperature.
- Higher-volume milk feeding can significant increase average daily gains.
- Surplus milk is the most cost-effective liquid feed. If no surplus milk is available or the milk price is high, milk replacers may become cost effective.
- Only use good quality milk replacers and mix to the manufacturer’s directions.
- Introduce small quantities of grain or grain-based concentrates from day one.
- Introduce small amounts of good quality fibre from three weeks of age, but fibre should comprise no more than 10 per cent of the pre-weaning diet.
- Monitor growth rates by measuring the height and weight of a sample of calves to determine the best time to wean.
- Make sure calves reach their concentrate intake consumption targets before weaning (e.g. average 1kg concentrate intake/calf/day).
- Weaning should be a gradual process to minimise stress on the calf.
To rear calves that thrive, planning for disease prevention is the key:
- Monitor calf health regularly (e.g. twice-daily) and act quickly if problems arise.
- Handle sick calves carefully to minimise the risks of infecting healthy calves.
- Develop treatment protocols for the common calf diseases and training on how to implement them.
- Adopt a preventative disease program (vaccination and parasite control) and implement the Three-Step Calf Plan for the control of Johne’s Disease.
- Record every treatment for every calf, every time.
- Try to keep calves away from faeces and reduce their exposure to pathogens.
- Use electrolytes as a first option for treating scours. Only opt for antibiotics after discussing options with a vet.
- Always clearly identify any calves that receive antibiotic treatments and segregate them from other calves.
To ensure calves are reared in clean and comfortable conditions:
- Provide calves with protection from wind, rain and heat.
- Ensure sheds have adequate air circulation while minimising draughts.
- Make sure dairy effluent does not enter the rearing environment.
- Choose a bedding material that is absorbent and comfortable whilst insulating calves from the cold.
- Top up bedding regularly and disinfect rails, partitions, walls and gates in calf pens.
- Make sure clothes and boots are clean to minimise spread of disease.
- Plan procedures to minimise the need to enter calf pens.
Access the comprehensive factsheet on Rearing Healthy Calves-2nd ed. Furthermore, discover information on ten essential steps to keep calves free of antibiotics residue.