Calf Health Module Introduction

Heifer calves are raised as replacements for lactating cows and are essential to the successful future of the dairy. The greatest mortality and morbidity period for dairy cattle is from birth to weaning. Management goals for the first 6 to 8 weeks of a calf’s life should be to minimize disease and mortality by providing a suitable environment, establishing a quality nutritional program and implementing a preventive health care plan.

The genetics of this heifer determine what her potential is. How she is raised, fed and managed determine what she will actually do. When a heifer freshens, someone has at least a two-year investment in her with no return on that investment up to that time. Her longevity in the milking herd and her milking ability will determine whether that investment is returned along with a reasonable profit. Longevity and milking ability are highly related to how she was raised.

Rearing healthy dairy calves requires maximizing the calf’s level of immunity against disease while minimizing its exposure to infectious agents. Improving a calf’s level of immunity requires proper colostrum management, a quality nutrition and vaccination program, and minimizing environmental and other stressors. Minimizing the risk of exposure to infectious agents requires excellent environmental management, good housing, sanitation, and control of potential disease carriers such as people, animals or equipment.

Producers should work with the herd veterinarian to design a calf health management program including a sound colostrum management program, a sound vaccination program for replacement heifers and cows, protocols for handling newborn calves, and protocols for the daily monitoring of calves to detect disease and make treatment decisions.

The goal of raising dairy heifer calves is to produce an animal that is suitable as a replacement at the dairy. The typical dairy, for a number of reasons, culls 25-35% of the milking herd each year. This indicates that a large number of replacement heifers are needed. The ideal replacement heifer

  • Weighs 1300 pounds or more at freshening without being fat
  • Is in good health
  • Will be no more than 24 months of age at calving
  • Is genetically and physically a more desirable animal than the one she is replacing.

Recent data from USDA:  NAHMS put pre-weaned calf mortality at 7.8 percent in the U.S. (2007). In addition, morbidity remains high, which adds to the economic burden through added labor and health supply costs; over 50 percent of morbidity is related to neonatal scours.

Death loss goals should be less than 5% from birth to weaning and less than 2% from weaning to freshening. Another goal is to have a heifer freshen by 24 months of age. Through proper feeding, management and health practices, these goals can be attained. The annual economic loss of higher than necessary death losses and older than necessary heifers at calving can be staggering.

Raising healthy calves is a challenging job as dairies try to minimize death and disease losses and raise quality replacements for the herd. According to the 2007 USDA NAHMS Dairy Survey, during 2006, 7.8 percent of preweaned heifers (as a percentage of heifers born during 2006 and alive at 48 hours) and 1.8 percent of weaned heifers died (weaning age to calving). Scours, diarrhea, or other digestive problems accounted for the majority of preweaned heifer deaths (56.6%). Respiratory disease was the single largest cause of weaned heifer deaths (46.5%). Management factors do influence the illness and death rates of calves. However, producers do not have to accept high rates as routine. Preventing disease in newborn calves gets them off to a good start, reduces death losses, and is cheaper than treating sick animals. The two diseases that cause the greatest morbidity and mortality in young calves are Scours and Pneumonia. These diseases can have lifelong impacts particularly respiratory disease. Even if a calf survives a disease or sickness, what is its potential for reaching proper weight at the proper time for calving and being successful in the dairy herd?

There is no single best way to raise calves, as all sorts of combinations of feeding, housing and management can be successful in the right hands and on the right farm. A system that works well on one farm may fail on another. A calf raising management plan must include all factors which are interrelated, such as nutrition, health care, growth, labor efficiency, capital and operation and maintenance costs. However, thrifty calves cannot be raised efficiently in poor facilities with inadequate animal husbandry. By understanding the scientific principles of calf growth, nutrition, health and behavior, producers can develop a management system that is successful on their own farm. Therefore, the only solution to address calf raising problems is for producers to review the “fundamentals” of calf management. The following are important considerations for that evaluation. They can be applied to every calf raising situation on every farm, whatever size operation.

  • Consistency. There should be consistency of newborn protocol and daily calf management, no matter who is the calf caretaker on a particular day. Work from youngest to oldest animals when doing chores.
  • Vaccination program. It should be periodically evaluated as producers should not depend on vaccination alone to solve disease problems.
  • Water. There needs to be fresh, clean water easily accessible and available at least twice daily.
  • Control flies. Keep ventilation inlets and windows screened at all times for an enclosed facility.
  • Biosecurity. Control and monitor all livestock, equipment, and people entering the calf facility.
  • Colostrum. Protocols should include manual feeding of high quality colostrum to each calf as soon as possible.
  • Calving Area. The use of individual maternity stalls and regular removal of bedding between calvings helps to decrease the incidence of calf diarrhea.
  • Calf temperature. Regular use of a rectal thermometer helps detect sick calves with fevers early. Normal body temperature is 101.5°F.
  • Designated Worker. Calf management work should be handled by the same person(s) every day to limit the possible transmission of disease from calf to calf and from other animals to calves.
  • Calf stress. Changes in routine will stress calves; and animals that are stressed are more likely to get sick. Feed changes, housing changes, and crowding can impose severe stress on individual calves and can contribute to digestive upsets and scours. Management techniques such as ear tagging, dehorning, transporting or the improper handling of calves by caretakers will cause stress.
  • Isolation. Ideally, calves need to be separated from each other with no physical contact between them especially on farms where high rates of contagious disease is present such as Salmonella Dublin, Mycoplasma or Coronavirus. When group housing is used for calves, intensified attention to early identification of sick calves and to environmental management needs to implemented. Isolate sick and diseased calves, feeding them last. Isolation allows for individual observation of animals in the crucial pre-weaning stage of development.
  • Maternity pens. New bedding should be used for every calving. The calf needs to be removed from the cow, manure and urine immediately.
  • Infection sources. Be on the lookout for the infection sources. Usually the source of infection is feces and nasal discharge. Occasionally, water, feeding utensils, rodents, birds, pets, or people can be the source of infection for calves.
  • Minimize feed and water spillage. Use buckets that are sufficiently large to minimize feed spillage. Place buckets at the proper height to minimize wastage. This helps control flies as well.
  • Nutrition. During the preweaning period, calves are usually consuming a very high-quality liquid diet. Problems can arise when quality standards are overlooked in the grain and forage portion of the diet during that time. Good nutrition can also be easily neglected between weaning and 6 months of age. Research shows that the consequences of improper nutrition during these critical stages of growth can cause these animals to have, on average, a 4½- month delay in age at first calving, a reduction in growth rate, and they are at increased risk of being culled as a cow.
  • Work with your local Vet. Seek advice from your local veterinarian in planning your disease prevention and treatment program.

The NYSCHAP Calf Care Module will help the producer and their herd veterinarian work through the many facets of Calf Care when they work through the Risk Assessments which cover a farm’s management, facilities, goals, current morbidity and mortality losses and concerns. There are three Risk Assessment worksheets:

  1. A Base Risk Assessment which covers general areas of health and management such as Maternity Pen management, Colostrum Management, Calf Procedures, Calf Housing, Calf Feeding, and Calf Weaning.
  2. A Respiratory Risk Assessment which is specific to respiratory issues in calves.
  3. An Enteritis Risk Assessment which is specific to diarrhea/scours issues in calves.

By asking detailed questions on what is happening on the farm, the producer and their veterinarian can determine high risk practices which may be leading to calf illness, poor growth, or even death in their calves.

Along with the Risk Assessment Worksheets, there are several Appendices that contain useful information to explain the questions asked in the worksheets. These are referenced by section in the worksheets and can be used as references for general accepted practices and industry standards.

This module works with the Core Program of NYSCHAP by performing risk assessments on the farm with a team consisting of the producer, herd veterinarian, NYSCHAP veterinarian and any key people that are deemed important. Goals are established and areas of concern are identified. Intervention tactics are added to the herd plan to address realistic changes for that farm to address those areas of concern. The herd plan is then revisited and updated on an annual basis to show progress or changing tactics or concerns for the farm.

To enroll in the NYSCHAP Calf Health Module a farm needs to be enrolled in the Core Module of NYSCHAP and agree to work with their herd veterinarian and NYSCHAP veterinarian to discuss issues, goals and to develop and follow a herd plan designed for their farm. A producer can work through their herd veterinarian, or directly through a State Field Veterinarian or Cornell veterinarian to set up the initial enrollment. They can also contact the program coordinator listed under Contacts if they have any questions about NYSCHAP or enrollment.