Neglecting health of calves can impact dairy farm profits quickly

Gloria Hafemeister
Keeping calves healthy so they may be productive members of the herd is one way dairy producers are striving to generate profit on the farm.

KEKOSKEE – When calves don’t get the attention they need, dairy farm profits can suffer.

High mortality of replacement animals, impaired growth of calves and decreased milk production of chronically afflicted calves are just a few of the results of not paying attention to the details of calf care. Neglecting the health of calves also leads to increased risks of infectious disease transmission throughout the entire herd and increased veterinary costs.

Dr. Joshua Steinbart, DVM, of the Mayville Animal Clinic addressed the calf care topic during the first of a series of “Dairy Talk Tuesdays” in Dodge County. He outlined what he calls the five ‘C’s of calf care: Colostrum, Calories, Cleanliness, Comfort and Consistency.


Colostrum contains antibodies or immunoglobulins (essential proteins) necessary to provide the calf with protection from disease.

 All of the producers present understood the importance of getting adequate colostrum feeding within the first 24 hours. Several farmers continue including small amounts of colostrum in feedings for the first two weeks by freezing colostrum in ice-cube trays and adding one a day to the feeding.

Dr. Steinbart agreed the procedure would not hurt and may help in the development of the calves’ immune systems.

“Monitoring failure of passive transfer (FPT) is important,” he states. “The best defense is good colostrum management.”

He sites research by Dr. Sandra Godden regarding the quality of colostrum and suggests that producers pay attention to hygiene and sanitation so as to minimize bacterial contamination during the colostrum harvest, storage and feeding processes.

He points out that fecal coliforms increase by ten every 30 minutes. Because they multiply so quickly, don’t store colostrum in a refrigerator for more than 7 days.


Discussions about bacterial contamination led to the second “C”, cleanliness.

“We need clean milk and feed for calves,” he stresses. “E-coli and salmonella are serious issues. E-coli may not directly kill a calf but it can certainly cause serious problems.”

Besides getting pathogens from contaminated feed, calves can also pick them up from the air and from bedding. Dry bedding is important. Moisture, combined with heat, will make contaminants grow.

He stresses the importance of disinfecting the individual calf pens between animals.

“Power washing just sprays the bacteria around,” he notes. “It does not disinfect. You need to scrub with a brush, clean and sanitize.”

When the calf is born, it needs to have a clean, dry, well-bedded and draft–free environment.

“By reducing bacteria in the calving area, you’re giving the calf the best possible start in life,” he says.

Clean and disinfect feeding nipples, bottles or tubes after each use. This will help to reduce the spread of disease among calves.

Calories & Comfort

 A third “C” of calf care is providing adequate calories for not only maintenance but also growth.

“The first calories a calf takes in are used for maintenance – immune function and keeping warm,” he notes. “Whatever is left is for growth. In winter a calf will need more calories just to stay warm.”

“Comfort” is another calf-rearing factor. Comfort for a calf is being well–bedded, warm and in a properly ventilated area. Ensuring the comfort of the calf means it will be healthier and will have a better average daily gain.

Dr. Steinbart says an important calf-rearing factor and that means adequate time for lying down. He suggests that calves need to lie down about 18 hours a day. Not lying down can affect growth.

He pointed to research on calf-comfort that monitored conditions that influence the time a calf lies down. On top of the list of concerns is the moisture of the bedding.

He points out that a calf will produce between 2.9 and 9.6 pounds of urine a day, depending on how much they are consuming. Different types of bedding will absorb differently but it is important to make sure the bedding is dry and comfortable.

Moisture in bedding also influences ventilation. Ammonia levels will rise with wet bedding and that affects feed intake and comfort.


 “Consistency” is the final calf-care factor.  Calves are creatures of habit and like the same routine day after day. They want to be fed the same feed at the same time each day.

He suggests using a brix refractometer to monitor feed when using waste milk because of the variability. The temperature of the milk fed should also be consistent and as close to the calf’s body temperature as possible.

“It takes more calories for a calf to digest milk that she must warm up than she gets from it,” he notes.

Finally, he stresses the importance of water that helps with rumen development and improves hydration. Water also helps a calf digest the milk replacer and improves absorption.

“If problems occur in calf development determine what the problem is and decide how to address it,” he said, adding that iIf a problem occurs within five days of birth the problem is usually with Mom or with the calving area.

If the problem occurs after that, consider the source of contamination. Have the pens been disinfected adequately between calves?  Was there manure in the calving area? Is bedding in calf pen dry and clean? Is the calf in contact with other animals?  Is there adequate ventilation? 

Adequate time between occupancy will help. Sunlight and freezing helps to kill bacteria. Relocating calf hutches between batches of animals can also help.