Record keeping most important part of keeping calves healthy and happy

Grace Connatser
Wisconsin State Farmer
The best thing to do for your calves is to keep detailed records on their birth and any sicknesses that happen to them so you can work on illness prevention in the herd.

One expert says all dairy farmers should keep extensive records about their calves' births, diseases and other mishaps because they could be prevented in the future.

Franklyn Garry, Colorado State extension specialist and veterinarian with the College of Veterinary Medicine, says the number one thing all dairy farmers need to do better on their operation is keep records on their calves. While the herd is important as a whole, it's made up of individual calves, and each calf needs detailed records to track disease progression and risk factors for disease.

"Individuals make up the herd and the information you're keeping is about the individuals. But really to make that operational, we want to then accumulate that information so we can relate it to the events that occur on the farm," Garry said.

Health maintenance and sickness prevention will return more on investment than any illness treatment, Garry said. He recommended avoiding a reactionary approach and instead implementing a preventative approach by looking at genetic predisposition and birth circumstances to determine the health and wellness of a calf. Colostrum transfer at birth is one of the key factors of wellness.

Garry explained that creating a calf birth certificate with its initial records on it is the best way to determine any risk factors for infectious disease or genetic issues. The certificate should include date of birth, lactation number, gender, dystocia score, vigor, birth/weaning weight and colostrum quality, among other things.

Franklyn Garry

"If the calf is gaining weight at an adequate level, we know that things are going well because little babies don't gain weight if they're sick. They don't gain weight if they're not fed well, they don't gain weight if they're facing challenges," Garry said. "So that's how you would say, 'Oh, something's not right here'."

Learning how to manage colostrum well is paramount to keeping a fit and healthy herd, Garry said, because absorbing the right amount of quality colostrum at birth gives calves a head-start on life due to the antibodies they receive. Serum protein levels shouldn't just be bare minimum, but excellent. Garry said any levels below 5.1 are poor, while levels above 6.2 are excellent.

Garry went on to say that any herd should have less than 10% of its calves below 5.1 serum protein levels, and ideally at least 40% of calves would be above 6.2.

However, it's important to remember that if your herd is big enough, you will inevitably have disease strike your herd and take some calves from you. In that case, Garry said farmhands can easily learn to perform simple necropsies so you can glean as much information as possible from the deaths. Instead of having a veterinarian on-site, he recommended taking pictures of any obvious abnormalities and sending them to the vet to be evaluated.

"Low serum total protein is not a disease, it's a risk factor. It doesn't require treatment – it predisposes the calf to later disease development. Or if it's high, it protects them against later disease development," Garry said. "You don't need to be a pathologist to be able to recognize when something looks bad. Take a photo of it and send it to the veterinarian and say, 'Look what I found in this calf that died. What do you think?'"