Calves- they’re not easy to raise and we don’t get any payback for at least two years. They get sick easily and take abundant resources, especially time and money, to rear into productive contributors to the herd. Are they worth all this effort? Research indicates that they are, indeed. A recent comprehensive review article by Soberon & Vam Amburgh (2013) concluded that level of investment in calves does make a difference in the future productivity of our herd. Numerous studies have quantified payback, showing significantly more milk production in the first lactation and an earlier age at first calving. Following is a review of some of the steps to success for raising healthy calves.

Colostrum

We all know that an adequate amount of good quality colostrum is vital to the short and long term health of a dairy calf. Yet the failure of passive transfer of immunity through colostrum in dairy calves across the nation is pushing 20%. Why are 1 in 5 calves still not getting what they need from colostrum? Data from a study we conducted throughout California indicate that only 33% of dairies consistently test colostrum quality before feeding (Love et al. 2016). Another 8% test colostrum sometimes, but that leaves a solid 59% that can’t be sure that the colostrum they are feeding is up to par. In a Tulare, CA study, Williams et al. (2014) found that colostrum quality can be highly variable on a single dairy. Training and established procedures are vital to ensure the best quality colostrum is being fed to calves. Timing is also key. Recent data at the national level (NAHMS 2016) reveal that the majority of dairies are feeding two quarts of colostrum at the first feeding. By the time feeding number two rolls around, gut closure may be imminent, resulting in the failure of passive transfer of immunity. In a positive trend, a recent Northern California study (Karle et al. 2015) indicated that about half of dairies feed the full recommended four quarts of colostrum in the first feeding, giving calves a better chance to effectively absorb the appropriate level of colostral antibodies.

Plane of nutrition

We feed calves an assortment of liquid diets- from waste milk to a wide variety of milk replacers to saleable milk.

As with colostrum, we need to consider the quality of the product we are feeding our investment. Survey data we collected throughout the state indicate that over half of dairies are feeding waste milk to calves, but only 29% of dairies pasteurize. Are we sure that unpasteurized waste milk is safe for our youngest calves? Quality of commercial milk replacers is also important to consider. Calf raisers should critically evaluate the formulation that is most appropriate for their calves, keeping in mind that cow’s milk is about 27-30% protein on a dry matter basis and a calf will suckle about 5 times per day, given the choice. It’s worth evaluating if a higher protein replacer and/or adding a third feeding would be beneficial to your calves.

Environment

Keeping calves in a comfortable environment sets them up to be successful by reducing their exposure to pathogens.

Wet and dirty bedding harbors a plethora of disease causing organisms and the more diseases that a calf has to fight off, the fewer energy reserves she has to dedicate to growth and production. A wide range of individual calf housing systems are used throughout the state and each dairy should select the most effective and efficient model for their operations and manage it well. Make accommodations as needed by age or season to provide the best environment for the calf at a particular time. For example, housing that allows cooling airflow in the summer may need to be generously bedded in the winter to maintain positive energy balance. In our Northern California study, we observed an increased prevalence of respiratory disease in group-housed pre-weaned calves. Each additional calf in a pen was associated with an 8% increase in BRD. Group housing can be an effective system for pre-weaned calves, but our data indicates that animal health should be closely watched.

While we don’t see immediate economic return from pre-weaned calves, they truly are the future of our herds and we can be confident that quality calf management will eventually pay dividends. As we increasingly understand the potential of these young herd members using genomic data, it becomes even more important to invest in their success from the get-go. It is an investment that will surely pay off down the road.