Do your calves get a gold star?

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This past year, in an effort to develop a unified set of industry standards for calf-raising, the Dairy Calf and Heifer Association established the “Gold Performance Standards” for raising Holstein calves.

The current standards were developed with an industry working group that included dairies raising their own replacements, contract growers, veterinarians, calf-care specialists, industry representatives and calf researchers.

These industry benchmarks should be used to set goals for raising calves, says Gary Neubauer, senior veterinarian at Pfizer Animal Health. “Compare your operation against the standards. You might find that sometimes when you think your dairy is doing just fine, what you consider to be “the norm,” might not be on par with the rest of the industry.”

While it is important to establish goals for different age groups of heifers, use the following “gold standard” recommendations for heifers up to six months of age.

1. Mortality

Use the age of 24 hours to distinguish between “dead-on-arrival” (stillbirth) and “calf mortality,” because some calves are born with a heartbeat and breathing, yet die not long after birth.

All newborn calves should be placed in an environment that will be safe from adult animals and adult-animal diseases. Treat each calf’s navel to control possible infection.

You should shoot for mortality rates of:

  • 24 hours to 60 days of age: less than 5 percent.
  • 61 to 120 days of age: less than 2 percent.
  • 121 to 180 days of age: less than 1 percent.

2. Morbidity

A couple of diseases stand out as problems on many dairies, namely scours and pneumonia. Your goal should be to reduce the incidence, or morbidity, of these two calf-health challenges.

For scours, defined as a case of diarrhea which requires any intervention for more than 24 hours, target morbidity rates are:

  • 24 hours to 60 days of age:  less than 25 percent.
  • 61 to 120 days of age: less than 2 percent.
  • 121 to 180 days of age: less than 1 percent.

Pneumonia is defined as a case of respiratory disease which requires individual animal treatment with an antibiotic (does not include use of feed-grade medication fed with regular ration). Target morbidity rates are:

  • 24 hours to 60 days of age: less than10 percent.
  • 61 to 120 days of age: less than 15 percent.
  • 121 to 180 days of age: less than 2 percent.

3. Growth rate

Start weighing calves at day one. It is better to weigh calves on an individual basis, but, at a very minimum, you need to have group weights.  

Target growth rate standards for Holstein calves are:

  • 24 hours to 60 days of age: Double birth weight.
  • 61 to 120 days of age: 2.2 pounds average daily gain.
  • 121 to 180 days of age: 2 pounds average daily gain.

4. Colostrum management

Colostrum equaling 10 percent of the calf’s body weight should be fed in the first four hours of life. (For example, a 90-pound calf should receive 4 quarts of colostrum.)

Colostrum should be free of blood, manure and other debris. Colostrum should be disease-free. Test the colostrum for quality with a colostrum tester or IgG test. Target bacteria count (also known as standard plate count) should be less than 100,000 CFU/mL.

For animals that are two to seven days of age, strive for a blood serum total protein that’s greater than 5.2 g/dL for maternal-source-colostrum-fed calves, or serum IgG greater than 10 g/L.

5. Nutrition

Monitor performance regularly. Consult with your veterinarian and nutritionist routinely.

Clean water and starter grain should be offered to calves, with continuous availability by three days of age. It should be refreshed or replenished daily.

6. Housing

Housing standards for calves 24 hours to 60 days of age should be:

  • Clean.
  • Dry.
  • Draft-free.
  • Good air quality.
  • Sized so calf can turn around.

Housing standards for calves 61 to 120 days of age should be:

  • Clean.
  • Dry.
  • Draft-free.
  • Good air quality.
  • Minimum of 34 square feet  per animal of resting space.
  • Adequate feeding space for all animals to eat at the same time.

Housing standards for calves 121 to 180 days of age should be:

  • Clean.
  • Dry.
  • Draft-free.
  • Good air quality.
  • Minimum of 40 square feet per animal of resting space in bedded-pack housing.
  • If animals are in free-stall housing, there should be one stall per animal.
  • Adequate feeding space for all animals to eat at the same time.

Now that you know what the industry standards are, write down the goals for your operation and put a monitoring system in place.


Trouble-shoot problem areas

In areas where you are not meeting the gold standards, ask yourself these three questions, recommends Lewis Anderson, calf-care specialist with Calf-Tel and president of the Dairy Calf and Heifer Association:

  • Why am I not reaching this standard?
  • What do I need to do differently?
  • Who can I call for help?

Each one of these questions will bring together a flood of information and resources that can help you in your quest to achieve the goals you have set, and that is raising high-quality dairy calves and heifers.



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