CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. — With increased regulations surrounding antibiotic use in the dairy industry, animal welfare concerns, and increased costs, reducing the number of sick calves on a farm needs to start with good management. Respiratory illness in calves has always been an area that is troubling to farmers and their employees. Fluctuating temperatures can wreak havoc on your youngstock if not managed properly. In order to raise productive, healthy calves, we must learn to focus on the small details, as they can make a great impact on calf health.
One of the first areas to focus on is maternity pen management. Calves need to be born into clean and sanitary environments to reduce the risk of bacterial contamination at birth. Try to reduce the incidence of overcrowding in maternity pens and make sure that bedding stays clean and dry. Reduce stress levels of freshening animals and monitor maternity pens often to catch any animals that may need assistance during calving.
Once that calf is on the ground, colostrum management and navel care are the next areas to focus on. Harvesting the colostrum from the dam in a timely manner is very important as the longer time progresses after freshening, the more diluted colostrum will become, therefore affecting colostrum quality. Once colostrum is collected, test the colostrum with a refractomer or colostrometer to ensure the calf is receiving the highest quality colostrum possible. Quality cannot be determined simply by visual inspection. High quality frozen colostrum and colostrum replacers are excellent options when a sample tests too low for recommended levels of greater than 60 for a colostrometer or greater than 22% on the brix scale. Four quarts of high-quality colostrum should be fed to the newborn calf within 2 hours of birth, the sooner the better. This timely feeding of colostrum will determine the newborn calf’s level of immunity for the first 2 weeks of life until it can start producing a natural level of immunity. Calves that do not receive this good nutritional start will see an increased level of sickness and overall higher levels of morbidity and mortality.
While that newborn calf is being assessed, providing some additional protection for that calf by dipping the navel with an approved product that not only provides a disinfecting component but also one that helps to dry that navel and promote healing. The navel cord is an excellent pathway for bacteria to enter the bloodstream of the calf and cause complications in numerous ways as that calf grows and develops. A calf with internal complications from contaminated navel pathways can lead to poor growth, increased respiratory illnesses, infected navels, swollen joints, septic infections, and even death. This simple and quick precaution for the calf can prevent these unnecessary complications.
As the calf grows, providing adequate nutrition, suitable housing with dry bedding, sufficient ventilation, and a consistent routine are the key aspects to calf health and development. Fresh grain and water should be available to calves from day 3 of life. Grain should be changed regularly and offered in small amounts until grain consumption has begun. Grain consumption is key to rumen development and is necessary for calves to transition from their liquid diets to grain and forage diets. There are numerous housing options for calves and regardless of the set-up, all housing should be well ventilated to provide fresh air but keep any drafts from affecting the calves. Bedding should always stay dry to avoid ammonia levels and give that calf a comfortable place to rest. In winter, it is important to provide enough bedding for calves to nestle into to conserve body heat, calf jackets can also help protect calves that are housed both indoors and outdoors.
Proper management of calves is key to keeping calves healthy. The more things we can do from a prevention standpoint can reduce the incidence of respiratory illnesses and other illnesses as well. If calves do become ill, prompt treatment protocols provided by the herd veterinarian should be followed, with detailed records being kept for follow-up treatments and care. Good biosecurity protocols should also be followed to reduce disease transfer within the farm as well as outside the farm. Practicing preventative techniques on your farm is critical to the health of your calves as well as the rest of your herd. For any additional questions, feel free to reach out to me, Cassie Yost at 717-643-1660 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
–Cassie Yost, Penn State Extension