Calf wellness: The dairy future's most important job

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Raising dairy calves is more than a series of tasks, it's a mindset. In fact, it's the most important job on a dairy, according to Gary Geisler, Purina Animal Nutrition.

“In the first two months of a calf’s life, you have a lot of opportunity to influence growth and health of the calf and affect the animal's future milk production and dairy profitability,” Geisler said during a special "employee” breakout session of the Dairy Calf & Heifer Association's 2014 Annual Conference, April 1, in Green Bay, Wis. “In addition, you affect rumen development, preparing the calf for future starter and dry feed intake.”

When working with calves, correlate activities with working with babies, Geisler said. He urged participants to review DCHA's Gold Standards when considering calf wellness, including death loss, sickness and growth.

Geisler said three conditions are necessary for a disease outbreak:

  • A pathogen is present in the environment
  • The host (calf) has low disease resistance
  • The host is exposed to overwhelming pathogen numbers.

To help reduce potential disease outbreaks, employees can take an active role in maintaining biosecurity of both the farm and, specifically, the calf barn. He noted attention is needed to prevent disease spread from purchased animals brought on the farm; people from other farms; caregivers working with older animals on the farm; trailers, skid steers and other equipment; and birds and other pests.

Employees can bolster and support the calves' immune system by paying attention to the animal's nutrition needs; reducing stressors; creating a comfortable environment, monitoring the temperature, air quality, water and space; and working with the farm owner and veterinarian to carry out a proper vaccination program.

Finally, a healthy environment can be maintained with regular cleaning and sanitation of calf stalls and pens and feeding equipment, and making sure people handling calves are clean.

Geisler reviewed a five-step process to cleaning feeding equipment:

  1. Rinse with warm water (90°F)
  2. Soak in hot water (>130°F) with chlorinated alkaline detergent
  3. Wash with hot water (>145°F)
  4. Drying completely
  5. Sanitizing with a 50 ppm chlorine dioxide solution prior to use.

"You have the most important job on the farm,” Geisler said. “You help build a better heifer for the future of your dairy.”

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