According to the National Animal Health Monitoring System, calf death loss averages 11 percent on U.S. dairy operations. If calf mortality is a problem on your dairy, maybe it’s time to examine how you manage the health of calves from birth until weaning — the time period when calf mortality is at its highest.

We’ve compiled a calf health checklist based on information gathered from veterinarians, university specialists and industry professionals. Take this checklist and walk around your dairy to assess how well you’re doing managing these four areas which can affect the health of calves less than two months of age. If you discover any areas for improvement, talk to your veterinarian about the changes you need to make.

1. Calving areas

Calves can be exposed to disease the minute they are born. Start your investigation in the maternity pen. Look at the following areas:

  • Examine the cleanliness of the calving area. A clean, dry and well-bedded pen reduces the amount of pathogens in the environment. Always remove bedding and sanitize pens between cows.
  • Observe the calving area. Always monitor cows and heifers frequently so that you can assist a difficult calving when necessary. Doing so will help get calves off to a good start.
  • Examine your post-delivery protocol. Clear mucous from the calf’s nose and mouth. Separate the calf from her dam as soon as possible to avoid the spread of diseases. Tie off the umbilical cord and spray it with 7 percent iodine solution. Feed high-quality colostrum within two hours after birth.
  • Consider your management of dystocia calves. Calves that experience a difficult birth have a reduced chance of survival. Dystocia calves, as well as calves born from an unassisted, but long birth, can benefit from practices such as oxygen therapy and stimulation with a blanket or towel to warm them.
  • Examine biosecurity practices when warming or transporting calves. Always disinfect warming pens and the equipment used to transport calves after each use.

2. Colostrum management

Feeding calves an adequate amount of good-quality colostrum as soon as possible after birth is a top priority, stresses Jim Drackley, associate professor of nutrition at the University of Illinois. Newborn calves need to receive colostral antibodies, or immunoglobulins, to ward off disease. Yet, according to the National Dairy Heifer Evaluation Project, more than 40 percent of heifer calves don’t get enough colostral antibodies during their first day of life.

  • Examine your colostrum feeding schedule. Calves require a minimum of 150 grams of immunoglobulin-G, or IgG, within 12 hours of birth to develop adequate immunity. You can accomplish this by feeding 2 to 3 quarts of high-quality colostrum within two hours of birth, followed by another 2 quarts at 12 hours after birth. Use an esophageal feeder to feed calves that are reluctant to suckle.
  • Use a colostrometer to check quality. Feed high-quality colostrum that falls within the “green zone” on a colostrometer. You can purchase a colostrometer for about $40, plus shipping, through Nasco, a farm supply catalog. Call (800) 558-9595.
  • Analyze colostrum handling practices. Avoid pooling colostrum, especially colostrum from animals infected with diseases, such as Johne’s or bovine leukosis. Only use colostrum from disease-free cows to prevent the spread of contagious pathogens to your calves.
  • Examine colostrum storage practices. You can store refrigerated colostrum for up to one week. Freeze colostrum in small amounts — 1-gallon freezer bags, for example — and store at -20 to -5 F for up to one year (Do not store in a frost-free freezer).
  • Use a thermometer to check the temperature of warmed colostrum. Calves absorb immunoglobulins better when the temperature of the colostrum is close to their own body temperature of 101 F.
  • Monitor immunoglobulin absorption. A calf’s ability to absorb the immunoglobulins in colostrum declines rapidly during her first day of life. Use a refractometer or on-farm test kits to measure a calf’s serum protein one week after birth. It can help you determine if she received enough immunoglobulins in her first day of life. (For more information, see the article, “Try calf-side IgG tests,” in the December 1999 issue of Dairy Herd Management.)
  • Use colostral supplements properly. They are not intended as a replacement for high-quality fresh or frozen colostrum. Instead, use them to boost IgG levels in poorer-quality colostrum — colostrum that falls within the “yellow” or “red” zones on a colostrometer. Or, use them when no high-quality colostrum is available or when colostrum contains contagious pathogens, such as Johne’s or salmonella.

3. Housing environment

Calves need an environment which is safe, dry and free of drafts, advises Sheila McGuirk, veterinarian at the University of Wisconsin. Examine these aspects of calf housing:

  • Look at the calf housing arrangement. Provide calf hutches or individual pens. Place the pens far enough apart to prevent calves from coming into contact with one another or suckling one another.
  • Examine calf bedding. It should be kept clean and dry to prevent a calf’s hair coat from becoming damp. It is especially critical to provide plenty of clean, dry bedding during cold or wet weather to keep the calf dry and discourage the growth of pathogens. And, provide an adequate drainage base — several inches of large gravel, followed by at least 4 inches of sand, for example — under the bedding. Slope the base away from the hutch or pen to keep calves dry.
  • Monitor ventilation. Check calves for open-mouthed breathing, coughing or nasal discharge. Inadequate ventilation encourages airborne pathogens that can lead to health problems. Always avoid drafts in your housing arrangement. If calves hunch up, elevate their hair coat or don’t gain weight, a drafty environment may be the cause.
  • Check your sanitation practices. Thoroughly clean calf pens or hutches with hot water at a temperature of 160 F between calves. Allow pens and the area around them to dry completely.
  • Monitor your biosecurity practices. You and your employees can transfer pathogens to calves on your hands, boots and clothes. Wash your hands with warm water and soap before tending to calves, wear clean clothes and scrub boots before entering the calf area. Separate sick calves and work with them last to prevent the transfer of disease to healthy animals. Wear latex gloves while feeding sick calves.

4. Nutrition program

Proper nutrition plays a vital role in the development of a calf’s immune system. Look for problems in the following areas:

  • Monitor water consumption. Provide free-choice, clean water at all times to encourage calf starter intake.
  • Provide adequate energy levels. An 80-pound calf needs about 3,500 kilocalories per day — 1,500 kilocalories to maintain its body, plus another 2,000 kilocalories to gain 1.5 pounds per day. When temperatures fall outside of a calf’s thermoneutral or comfort zone — 59 F to 77 F — a calf must use energy to heat or cool itself. For example, a calf’s maintenance energy requirement nearly doubles when the temperature falls below 0 F, leaving little energy left for growth. Thus, in times of cold or heat stress, monitor energy levels in milk or milk replacer closely and work with your nutritionist or veterinarian to increase energy as needed.
  • Examine waste milk feeding practices. Waste milk can contain harmful bacteria or mastitis-causing pathogens that can contribute to decreased calf health. Make it a practice to pasteurize waste milk. This is economically feasible for dairies with a herd size of about 1,300 cows, or those which feed about 315 calves per day.
  • Check the cleanliness of feeding equipment. Use separate bottles or buckets for each calf, especially sick calves. Or, disinfect bottles or buckets with hot, soapy water and allow them to dry between feedings. Remember to disinfect the esophageal feeder, too.
  • Examine your feeding schedule. Feed calves at the same time every day. Practice consistency in milk or milk replacer preparation.

Meet the experts

This calf health checklist was compiled with information from the following experts:

Marguerita Cattell, consulting veterinarian in Loveland, Colo.

Jim Drackley, associate professor of nutrition at the University of Illinois.

Frank Garry, veterinarian at Colorado State University.

Jud Heinrichs, dairy science professor at Penn State University.

Sheila McGuirk, veterinarian at the University of Wisconsin.

Jim Quigley, director of research and product development with American Protein Corporation.

Troy Scott, technical service manager with Milk Specialties Company.