Dairy calf care: Every delivery is special

Dairy calf care: Every delivery is specialColorado dairy producer Amanda Dye won't put a new worker on her maternity crew until that person has received calving management training by her veterinarian.

Dye manages Dyecrest Dairy near Ft. Collins, Colo. with her father, Terry. The 2,000-cow dairy – one of the largest all-registered Holstein herds in the country – retains about 20% of its bull calves to sell to other dairies as breeding bulls.

"The maternity pens are where everything starts for our herd replacements and bulls," said Dye, "To do an excellent job there requires a specific set of skills, and consistent execution of them."

A need to shift focus

Dr. Frank Garry, professor of veterinary medicine at Colorado State University (CSU), hopes Dye's attitude is contagious. "Our industry places a lot of emphasis on calf mortality and morbidity, but largely overlooks losses in the first 48 hours of life," he said.

"The delivery process actually is the primary killer of calves on dairies. It affects every organ system, and charts the calf's viability for its entire life."

Garry said dystocia – defined as a difficult birth requiring assistance – is highly predictive of calf survival, health and performance. Neonatal asphyxia (lack of oxygen) occuring during a hard delivery accounts for about one-third to one-half of newborn calf losses.

While a range of factors can contribute to stillbirth, Garry said dystocia is the most common cause. "About 79% of stillborn calves are born dead; 21% are born alive and die within hours after delivery," he said. "But more than 90% of stillborn calves are alive at the start of calving."

Even if the calf survives, it is at increased risk for subsequent health problems beyond the first 48 hours of life, including poor colostral immunity transfer, and greater vulnerability to infectious pathogens.

"Often, these deaths are not monitored or tracked on the dairy," added Garry. "It's common to see records noting a fresh cow with no calf. If death loss in the first 48 hours of life were added in (estimated industry-wide at about 7% to 8%), many dairies would have overall calf mortality in the neighborhood of 15% to 20%."

Records and routines

At Dyecrest Dairy, the standard for calving first-calf heifers is 22 months of age, likely contributing to a stillbirth rate that falls in line with industry averages – about 7% annually. Amanda Dye knows, because each month she records every animal that calved; its lactation number; sire; the calf's sire; and gender of the calf.

Dairy calf care: Every delivery is special"It helps me to monitor trends over time and evaluate sires," said Dye. "It's also a great feedback tool for my maternity team members."

About five years ago, the Dyes started enhancing their maternity team skills by enrolling in a calf management school conducted by CSU's Integrated Livestock Management team, headed up by Garry.

The hands-on training covers all aspects of delivery and newborncalf care. The CSU team doesn't limit training to techniques, but also emphasizes careful decision-making. They share criteria on when to wait, when to intervene, and when to call in veterinary assistance.

Dye said the training has made a marked difference in her maternity team's performance and morale. "No one likes to lose calves or cows," she shared. "The training has helped our crew approach the calving process carefully and deliberately, without becoming panicked or frustrated."

Since initially using the CSU calving schools, the Dyes have shifted maternity training to their herd veterinarian, Chris Malherbe.

While Dyecrest Dairy's stillbirth rate is about average, its overall mortality rate for calves 24 hours to weaning is astounding. From January through July this year, it was just 0.9%, and regularly runs at less than 1%.

"We keep every calf – bull, heifers, preemies and everything else," said Dye. "I have no doubt that the protocols we have established for calving are impacting the long-term viability of our calves."

Dairy calf care: Every delivery is specialGarry pointed out that a good share of Dyecrest Dairy's calving success lies in the owners" ongoing commitment to the process. "University or consultant-based programs can be a great starting point, but the Dyes" outcomes are mainly the result of Amanda and Dr. Malherbe monitoring and evaluating and frequently going back through and working with the employees," he said. "Only the owner/manager and the herd vet can have that kind of presence on a dairy. As a result, the workers get feedback and reminders and become more educated and show better judgment along the way."

Dystocia calves can be helped

Garry and his fellow researchers recently conducted a study examining the impacts of dystocia on calf health and survival, which included dairies with overall dystocia rates above 30%.

While the cause of dystocia itself may prove difficult to solve, CSU researchers have proven that calf survivability can be improved by 50% or more by training dairy workers on protocols for newborn calf assessment and monitoring.

They advise that healthy newborn calves should:

• breathe spontaneously, and show strong activity, almost immediately after birth.

• stand within one hour of birth.

• have and maintain a body temperature of 101'F or higher.h

• demonstrate an active suckling reflex even before standing.

Most dystocia-affected calves will not demonstrate all or any of these behaviors, indicating they need more attentive care to prevent subsequent disease problems and death.

Because most dairy calves are removed from their dams within a few hours of birth, Garry said mothering – such as drying the calf off, feeding colostrum and providing a warm, draft-free post-delivery environment – must be delivered by human caregivers.

"As an industry, we invest a great deal in genetics, including genomic evaluation," said Garry. "It makes sense to place more emphasis on delivering calves safely, in terms of both economics and animal welfare. Higher rates of success require that employees are well-trained about the processes, techniques and protocols to provide the best possible care to dams and their calves."

Dairy calf care: Every delivery is specialA set of teaching materials can be accessed on the Integrated Livestock Management website at Colorado State University, http://www.cvmbs.colostate.edu/ilm/proinfo/calving/notes/home.htm

Dr. Garry delivered a comprehensive presentation on dairy calf delivery and newborn calf care at the 2014 Vita Plus Calf Summit in Onalaska, Wis. in June 2014. Proceedings from this meeting, including Dr. Garry's presentation, can be accessed at http://www.vitaplus.com/starting-strong/vita-plus-starting-strong-calf-care-e-news-calf-summit-2014.

Read more:

Get a handle on dystocia data - Colorado State University professor of veterinary medicine Frank Garry suggests dairies can improve calf survival by monitoring and improving calving management. He recommends regularly recording and tracking.

When to assist, what to do - Dr. Harry Momont has trained veterinary students on calving practices for more than two decades at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine. Momont shares his advice on how to best handle on-farm calving management.