Even if a dairy is set up with maternity pens, a large amount of calves can overwhelm the typical calving area.

In a calving surge, producers need to find other places they can calve cows and heifers, says Sam Leadley, calf-care specialist with Attica (N.Y.) Veterinary Associates.

“Just get more space,” he says. “Depending on the season and part of the country, fencing in an extra ‘closeup’ paddock and setting up a ‘J-bunk’ for feeding is an option.”

For instance, Leadley’s clients will start housing some of their close-up cows on grass paddocks in June to provide cleaner environments for calvings during the July surge.

It requires planning and attention to detail in key areas, such as housing and colostrum management.

A double whammy

Unfortunately, many dairies are not set up to be flexible in the housing of close-up cows and heifers. Some producers choose to delay moving animals into the pre-fresh group in order to keep the numbers down.

“Where they keep animals in freestalls and move into calving pens ‘just in time,’ this delay strategy works well to keep the free-stall overcrowding under control, but does not do anything for keeping the calving pens in better shape,” Leadley says.

The variation that Leadley sees onfarm between slack times and surge times is great.

“For me, about 10 months of the year were low pathogen-exposure times,” he says. “Calving packs were well-bedded and dry. As soon as corn planting and haylage harvest started, the crew that took care of the bedding got pulled off to help outside and the inside crew was overloaded. Calving conditions went to ‘hell in a hand basket.”

 Manage calf surges

Meanwhile, colostrum feedings were delayed, the calves’ immunity levels dropped, and pathogen exposure increased. A double whammy occurred: Inadequate immunity and excessive pathogen exposure.

Then, suddenly, things would improve again.

“Corn planting and first cutting would get done,” Leadley says. “Presto, passive transfer failure rate dropped and the frequency of severe scours cases went down as well.”

Here are three approaches to solving the problem:

• Install extra calf housing. If current calf housing is overwhelmed in a calving surge, Leadley says there are other areas of the dairy that can be utilized. They need to be clean and dry with plenty of fresh air, but not in a draft. “I have seen overflow calves in machine sheds, straw barns and commodity barns,” he says. “Almost any place with a roof, if the weather is an issue, will work.” In the summer, calves can be tied to any object that they cannot move, including trees and wagons. “Four gates set up can make a pen anywhere that is not in the mud,” he adds.

• Provide training and standard operating procedures. Ask your veterinarian to help train employees and set up written protocols. It’s a good idea to cross-train one or two other dairy employees who are not the typical calf caregivers to help with calves in the event of a surge. They should be trained to feed colostrum, dip navels and tag newborn calves, or feed milk, water or grain to pre-weaned calves. Leadley says it’s not a bad idea, either, to hire one or more temporary employees to help provide newborn care and to provide timely colostrum feeding. “They really need to be prepared to do the extra work before the surge happens,” Leadley advises.

• Improve colostrum management. There are five “Qs” of colostrums management: quality, quantity, quickly, sQueeky clean and quantify passive transfer. Yet, shortcuts in colostrum management can occur in a calving surge, including:

• Skipping testing with a colostrometer or refractometer, and just feeding whatever is on hand. You cannot feed enough of low-quality colostrum to get 200 grams of IgG into a calf, Leadley says.

• Cutting back on time. Cheating the time allotment to feed calves means the animals probably will end up with less than the 4 quarts in the first four hours — or the second feeding will be skipped entirely.

• Rinsing equipment rather than washing it. In this instance, biofilms can build up, supporting large bacteria populations on equipment surfaces.

• Not drawing blood to quantify the level of passive transfer.

When too many of these things occur, a producer might consider using a commercial colostrum replacer product — with a standard level of nutrients — as the first feeding after birth.

Geni Wren is the editor of Bovine Veterinarian, a sister publication of Dairy Herd Management.