Animal health matters: Raising dairy calves successfully depends on good management

Russ Daly
Special to the Farm Forum

Cow-calf producers base their calendar around a distinct calving season, but for dairy farmers, calving is an everyday occurrence.

Accordingly, the calf “crops” from a dairy consist of a few calves at a time.  Some dairies raise those calves themselves, but most outsource these days-old calves to contractors or sell them off the farm. This early-age transition to a new home and new caretakers can be a challenge for dairy calves — one not faced by beef calves growing up with their mothers. 

These potential new homes range from intensely managed calf ranches with thousands under their care to a backyard pen fashioned for a calf or two as a special project for a youngster. Calf ranch managers rely on standardized care protocols, a necessity if you need to feed milk to 5,000 calves twice a day. 

The more occasional calf-raiser usually doesn’t have that kind of experience to fall back on.  What’s more, their success can vary greatly from calf-to-calf and group-to-group, often due to factors outside their control.  (I’ve come to appreciate an adage I learned in practice: “If you think you know everything about raising bottle calves, you just haven’t raised enough of them”). 

These factors come into play more often than not. Ample, timely and good-quality colostrum is critical for calf health, but has to be managed at the dairy well before the calves show up at their destination. Transportation stress, especially during hot, humid summer conditions, can exacerbate any disease issue a baby calf has been exposed to. Buying calves that have had shorter, rather than longer, trips to the farm is almost always better. 

Calves should arrive at a clean hutch or pen. Many of the germs that wreak havoc on baby calves are picked up right away from their mother or calving pen, but contaminated hutches, pens, trailers or other equipment represent significant exposures to potential pathogens. 

Besides colostrum and cleanliness considerations, nutrition is incredibly important for these calves. Good-quality milk replacer is worth the extra cost.  Minimums of 20% for protein and fat are standard recommendations, and the ingredients are important, too: Milk-based ingredients (whey or skim-milk — rather than soy or plant-based proteins) should be used in calves younger than three weeks old.  Mixing directions should be followed to the letter. 

I’m not sure that calves are creatures of habit, but their digestive systems sure are.  Feeding calves consistent amounts of milk replacer at body temperature the same times every day will help reduce gut problems due to Clostridial infections. Any changes, such as increases in the amount fed, should be made very gradually and carefully. 

If you ask 20 different calf raisers and their veterinarians what they recommend giving to newly arrived bottle calves, you’ll likely get 40 different answers. Vaccines, antibiotics and feed medications are common — sometimes overly plentiful — in calf-raising protocols.  If the basics — colostrum, clean comfortable environments from birth on and nutrition — are taken care of, many of these are unnecessary.

One of the biggest dilemmas for calf-raisers is knowing when a calf needs help. Lack of appetite, loose stools, sunken eyes and reluctance to rise are all indications of illness and should be addressed through veterinary advice or treatment, sooner rather than later.  High-quality electrolytes are useful adjuncts to treatments that all calf raisers should have on hand.  Effectively detecting these problems gets better with experience, but a veterinarian’s advice can greatly speed up the education process. 

Lastly, it’s important for calf raisers to know that they and their families can get sick themselves from handling young calves, even healthy ones. Cryptosporidiosis is an example of a zoonotic disease that make for some miserable days of illness for those affected. This and other animal-to-people germs are good reason to use designated clothes and boots while working around calves and wash hands afterwards. 

Raising dairy calves can be rewarding or frustrating, and everything in-between.  Getting input from a veterinarian and other knowledgeable people can help make this a positive experience for both people and calves alike. 

Russ Daly, DVM, is the Extension Veterinarian at South Dakota State University.  He can be reached via e-mail at russell.daly@sdstate.eduor at 605-688-5171.