Mistakes in Calf Care

Over my years in veterinary practice, I have seen my clients choose options that make raising baby dairy calves harder. Any one of these decisions will increase the risk of sick or dead calves, yet combined, these mistakes or “shortcuts” that people attempt make it a struggle to raise good calves with minimal death loss.

Feeding time
Topping the list is the failure to feed calves enough colostrum soon enough. This subject has been published and preached a great deal in recent years, yet it bears repeating that if calves don’t get a gallon of colostrum within the first three or four hours of life, one has started behind the eight ball and calf health will be at higher risk.

A close second in the list of mistakes is not feeding enough milk through the first 6 to 8 weeks of life. The old 2 quarts twice a day plan of feeding calves does not provide enough energy and protein for growth and health, especially in hot or cold weather conditions. Dr. Tucker addressed this subject in greater detail in another article that will soon be featured on this blog, or can be viewed in the fall issue of the Advocator magazine under the resources tab of this website.

Calf sourcing and housing
Buying sale barn calves from multiple sources is almost a sure bet for serious health challenges. One group I once dealt with was a semi load of calves out of 37 different sale barns, and all of them traveled here on the same truck. We ultimately isolated 5 different pneumonia organisms plus Salmonella from that group of calves and the death loss approached an ugly 20%.

Air quality of the housing system used is a big deal. Calf huts are the gold standard because they provide the maximum amount of fresh air and offer the least amount of risk of getting disease from a calf in another hut. In barns housing calves, proper ventilation, size of individual pens, and pen divider type all matter. Short cuts result in more sick calves.

Taking too many shots
Too many vaccines given when the calf is too young is a stress on the animals, and the poorly developed immune system of baby calves is not prepared to respond and produce immunity in these calves. Our rule is no injectable vaccines to calves under 7 days and a general philosophy of simple is better. Some clients are injecting calves with as many as 12 or 15 antigens using combination vaccines. Calves are not automatically immune to a wider array of disease because they received a combination vaccine, and producers are not likely seeing the result they intended.

Improper strategy for weaning and grouping calves also can create problems. Calves should not be weaned, moved and grouped in the same day. The stress of this practice will result in sick calves. Ideally, calves should be fed once a day for the last week on milk and then another week in the same pen be-fore moving on to group housing. Groups of ten are the model and there should be no change of diet until several weeks after calves have adapted to group housing.

I have identified here some of the “bigger” mistakes that make life harder for you and your calves. There are many other little details that good calf raisers practice that increase odds of success we can discuss in some future article.