We often invest much time, effort and money into getting cows pregnant, but take little time or effort taking care of that pregnancy once it comes time for the calf to enter the world. The first few hours after a calf is born are critical to her success as a dairy replacement animal. Let’s revisit the most important action items to achieve success with your heifer calves.

Maternity pen management

Take a critical look at where your cows calve. Are cows clean? Is the pen clean, ventilated, and well lit?  There are a tremendous number of pathogenic organisms in cow manure such as E. coli, Cryptosporidium, Salmonella and the bacterium that causes Johne’s disease.

Are calves immediately removed from the cow after birth? You do not want the calf to have time to get manure in its mouth. On farms with Johne’s disease and Salmonella, it is even more critical to remove heifer calves immediately. 

Newborn calf management

Immediately after birth, warm and dry calves. If calves have difficulty breathing, set them sternally (on their belly and chest) with legs tucked underneath. Rub them vigorously with towels and stimulate breathing by sticking a piece of straw in the nostril. 

Thoroughly dip calf navels with a drying agent, preferably 7 percent iodine. The open navel is a source for bacteria to enter the bloodstream, which can lead to navel, liver and joint infections that are often very difficult to treat.

Colostrum management

Perhaps the most important step is feeding adequate colostrum in a timely manner. The ability to absorb the antibodies from the colostrum decreases rapidly after birth, with 50 percent decreased absorption by 12 hours of life. Therefore, it is critical that all calves receive adequate colostrum immediately after birth. 

Holstein calves require 1 gallon of colostrum and Jerseys should get 2.5 to 3 quarts. It is far more important that calves get the adequate amount on the first meal, even if they eat less in 12 hours. 

Consider testing colostrum for antibody content with a colostrometer or a simple IgG test. Colostrum that is low on antibodies should not be fed. The vaccination program for your cows can influence the antibody content of colostrum. 

Colostrum needs to be clean and fresh. Therefore, clean and sanitize the teats of fresh cows before milking.

Bacteria can double every 20 minutes in warm colostrum. If colostrum is not fed immediately, cool it first with ice packs put in the colostrum bucket then transfer it to the refrigerator or freezer. 

All equipment that is used to feed calves needs to be sanitized, too. Clean your calf feeding equipment as you would your pipeline to minimize bacterial overgrowth. 

Culturing colostrum and milk before it is fed to calves can be a nice evaluation tool to assess your sanitation protocols.

Calf nutrition and growth

Perhaps one of the most common underlying causes of calf disease is inadequate nutrition.  Maintaining the immune system requires calories, and if the calf does not have enough calories she will not have a functioning immune system. For example, feeding calves 2 quarts of a conventional milk replacer milk twice a day is often not adequate to allow growth and immune system maintenance. This is especially true in the wintertime when calves nutritional requirements increase.

To make sure you are on the right track with each of these areas, review your vaccination, facility and equipment sanitation, and nutritional programs with your veterinarian. Also ask your veterinarian to train you or farm employees on the proper way to tube-feed calves.

Remember, every heifer calf born is a future productive animal on the farm. Ensure that calves start off each and every time by following these basic management protocols.

Fred Gingrich is a practicing veterinarian and owner of Country Roads Veterinary Services, Inc. in Ashland, Ohio.