Calf Wellness Traits Now Part of Holstein Genomic Offering

Calf livability, respiratory disease and scours now are traits that producers can use to identify and breed for future herd replacements. ( Wyatt Bechtel )

Genomic testing in Holsteins has advanced further with the recent introduction of three new calf wellness traits: calf livability, respiratory disease and scours.          

This information, available via Clarifide Plus from Zoetis, enables dairy producers to strategically improve calf health and replacement heifer longevity by selecting for these important traits. While such genetic advancements do not replace the need for traditional animal husbandry and disease-prevention measures, they do help minimize disease risk. Improved animal welfare, fewer pharmaceutical treatments and lower calf mortality all are potential results.

In addition to the three individual traits, Clarifide Plus also offers the Calf Wellness Index (CW$), a multi-trait selection index that exclusively focuses on calf wellness traits to directly estimate the potential profit contributions of the wellness traits for an individual animal.

CW$ also has been added to the Dairy Wellness Profit Index (DWP$). The calf wellness traits further enhances the information factored into DWP$, the most comprehensive animal ranking selection commercially available for Holsteins. It now includes wellness traits for both calves and adult cows, along with other economically important production, performance and longevity-related traits.

“Calf health and mortality can mean the difference between profits or shortfalls in tight-margin years,” said Kent Weigel, professor and chair of the Department of Dairy Science at the University of Wisconsin. “The availability of genomic calf wellness traits will be game-changing for producers.”

According to the USDA’s National Animal Health Monitoring System (NAHMS), pneumonia and scours are the two leading causes of both calf illness and death in U.S. dairy operations. Their data shows:

               23.9% of pre-weaned dairy heifers are affected by scours
               • 12.4% of pre-weaned dairy heifers are affected by respiratory disease
               • 56.0% of all pre-weaned calf deaths are due to scours
               • 47.0% of all weaned calf deaths are due to respiratory disease1

Researchers also are finding that early incidence of disease in a heifer calf’s life can impact her future performance in the lactating herd. A study at the University of California-Davis showed that calves with respiratory disease requiring treatment produced about 1,087 pounds less milk in their first lactations compared to heifers that had not required treatment early in life.2

In a University of Guelph study, clinical cases of pneumonia in the first 90 days of life resulted in a greater likelihood for heifers to experience increased age at first calving; higher incidence of dystocia; lower milk production; and greater mortality before first calving.3

Dan Weigel, Director of Outcomes Research for Zoetis, noted the economic importance of efficient replacement rearing for today’s dairy enterprises. “Heifer replacement costs are second only to feed costs for U.S. dairy farm expenses,” said Weigel. “Herds that have health struggles raising heifers are forced to retain more of them to ensure they have enough replacements.” He added that carrying extra heifers is an expensive insurance policy, and represents a dual economic setback because herds not only incur the additional expense of rearing more heifers, but also miss out on the cash-flow opportunity of selling excess replacements.

Weigel shared data from Compeer Financial ranking Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) for U.S. dairy farms. “The strongest predictor of net farm income was net herd replacement cost, followed by 21-day pregnancy rate and heifer survival percentage,” he stated. “The fact that two of the top three KPIs are related to replacement heifer development underscores the importance of using calf wellness traits to improve heifer survival and lower net herd replacement cost.”

For more information on Clarifide Plus and the new calf wellness traits, follow this link.


  • 1 U.S. Department of Agriculture. Dairy 2007: Heifer Calf Health and Management Practices on U.S. Dairy Operations, 2007 Accessed January 16, 2018.
  • 2 Van Eenennaam AL. Bovine Respiratory Disease Prevention: Opportunities for Genetic Selection, in Proceedings. 2015 Western Dairy Mgmt Conf. Accessed January 25, 2018.
  • 3 Stanton AL, Kelton DF, LeBlanc SJ, Wormuth J, Leslie KE. The effect of respiratory disease and a preventative antibiotic treatment on growth, survival, age at first calving, and milk production of dairy heifers. J Dairy Sci. 2012:95(9):4950-4960.