Implementing Calf Management Practices: Does It Pay?

Holstein calf ( Taylor Leach )

Economic considerations are important when implementing management practices on-farm. Solutions work best when the bottom line is justified. Our team investigated the costs associated with select calf management practices that were associated with a reduction in bovine respiratory disease (BRD) in pre-weaned dairy calves. Specifically, cost-benefit analyses were conducted for increased milk feeding and dam vaccination on BRD incidence. In our analyses of 2,615 calves treated for BRD on 5 herds throughout California, we honed in on the short-term cost of BRD, which was estimated at $42.15 per case (medication- $15.70, labor- $17.30, loss of average daily gain- $9.15).

Increasing milk fed

A significant factor in calf health outcomes, especially relative to respiratory illness in calves, is the amount of milk fed daily. Our studies found that increasing milk intake by a pint, from 8 pints to 9 pints, daily, for at least the first 21 days of life was valuable. The cost of the additional milk fed was calculated using the Penn State Calf Milk Pasteurization Evaluator spreadsheet. Feeding the extra pint reduced BRD incidence by 92% and cost approximately $1.19 per calf to implement on a typical California herd (1,249 lactating cows). Over a one-year period, dairies could save up to $8.51 per calf where BRD typically affects 25% of pre-weaned calves. Even herds with low BRD incidence, such as around 5%, are expected to save $0.75 per calf in treatment costs. It is not until BRD incidence is 3% or less on an annual basis that increasing the amount of milk fed would not be economically beneficial.

Vaccination of dams

Vaccination of dams with a modified live vaccine per the herd veterinarian’s protocol was associated with a reduction of BRD in pre-weaned calves. As a preventative measure, vaccination was correlated with a 67% decrease in the risk of BRD. Other benefits of vaccination beyond BRD reduction in pre-weaned calves were not analyzed in the current study. The cost of vaccination was estimated at $4.64 per heifer calf and assumed that all bull calves were sold within 1-2 days of birth. All cows are typically vaccinated, regardless of their calf’s sex. If bull calves are raised on-site, the ratio of calves raised to cows vaccinated increases, diluting the additional cost of vaccine over the larger number of calves being raised. Based on the scenario of raising heifer calves only, economic gains relative to calf BRD were present in herds with 20% or more of calves affected by BRD in the pre-weaning period. A net savings of $2.42 per calf could be realized in herds where 25% of calves are affected by BRD. Vaccine protocols should always be developed in consultation with your veterinarian to meet the needs of your particular herd.

Future research

Increasing the frequency of maternity pen bedding changes, heat treatment of colostrum, storing colostrum in bags (compared to bottles), feeding whole milk, pasteurizing milk, housing calves individually, reducing dust, and providing shade or shelter, also have a significant role in reducing BRD in calves. While we have not yet analyzed cost-benefit scenarios for these additional practices, their benefits should not be overlooked.

The bottom line

While implementing management practices is an investment, there may be gains to be had when a cost-benefit scenario is considered. Increased amount of milk fed and vaccination are two particular practices strongly associated with improved calf health in our previous studies, as well as economically viable when put into practice.