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Best Calf Management Practices From Birth To Weaning

Best Calf Management Practices From Birth To Weaning

Calves are the future stock of a dairy enterprise. Given the high stakes they hold for the farm, it is important for every farmer to implement best calf management practices to bring up a healthy replacement stock.

The title of this article suggests that the practices we’ll talk about cover the period between birth and weaning. However, calf management begins way before parturition. The cow must be in perfect health to ensure that the calf receives the best form of nutrition and pro-health factors.

Calves can be very vulnerable to external conditions, which can increase their chances of death. It is necessary to implement the calf management practices we’ll discuss in this article to reduce chances of death. Calves under these conditions will also grow faster and healthier.

Calf management practices before parturition

This stage is critical for the survival of the calf. Proper perinatal management will ensure high viability for the calf. The sire must be carefully selected to avoid passing on bad trait to the young stock.

You must ensure that the dam is in perfect health to avoid passing on some undesirable traits to the calf. If you notice that the dam has some viral or bacterial infections that could pass on to the calf, consult your vet to vaccinate the cow appropriately.

Nutritional management in the last trimester

The cow requires a lot of energy at this point and protein to support the growing calf. Ensure the feeds contain just adequate amounts of these two ingredients because you do not want to end up with an oversized calf that will complicate birthing process.

Additionally, excessive feeding will make the animal very big and increase its chances of getting milk fever. If your cow is carrying twins, it would be very advisable to dry it off sooner developing a lower body condition score (BCS). Reducing the dietary cation anion balance in dry cows can lower the risk of developing milk fever

Since you are aiming at boosting the health of the mother and the calf, you should compromise neither. Some farmers put the in-calf cows on straw to prevent dystocia (difficult birth). However, this may drastically lower the immunity of both the mother and the calf.

If you notice that the calf is over sized, you can induce parturition using dexamethasone (you can find it on Amazon), as and when advised by your vet. Take care that you only induce parturition at term, otherwise you are highly likely to lose your calf. Early induction can also lead to retained afterbirth and reduced milk production.

Do not be ridiculous as to use an oversized Holstein bull on a tiny Jersey dam. The calf will most probably nor survive due to lack of room for growth and development in the womb.

Underfed cows will have more problems during parturition. They will sacrifice their body reserves to enable the calf to grow to full size. This means that the dam will not have sufficient fat and proteins to manufacture milk at the required time.

You should ensure that the mother gets adequate supplies of minerals and clean water. Zinc, cobalt, manganese, magnesium, copper, selenium and phosphorus are needful to boost the immunity of the mother and the calf. A cow that receives the right balance of these minerals stands a better chance of fighting off diseases such as mastitis before or after calving.

Feed composition for an in-calf cow from 4 weeks before parturition (the composition assumes that you are not feeding salts to the cow during this period)

Mineral/Vitamin% composition of dry matter content
Vitamin E1168 – 1200 ppm
Selenium0.3 ppm
Zinc21 – 30 ppm
Copper12 – 18 ppm
Potassium0.51 – 0.62
Phosphorus0.22 – 0.26
Calcium0.44 – 0.48
Magnesium0.11 – 0.16

Source: Nutrient Requirements of Dairy Cattle. 2001. (7th rev. ed.).

Vaccination can help control scours

To prevent scours in the newborn calves, vaccinate the dam with a scour vaccine before parturition. Vaccination time depends on the cow. If you are dealing with mature cows, vaccinate between 4-6 weeks before calving. Vaccinate heifers two months before calving and again one month before parturition.

Scour vaccines can include E. coli, the rota and corona viruses, and/or Clostridium perfingens. Consult with your vet to ensure that you administer the right vaccine treatment to the animal. If the vet determines that the colostrum immunity is insufficient, you may administer the products orally to the calf.

The currently available vaccines for cows can effectively control a number of organisms.

A few days before birth, separate the in-calf cow and put it into the maternity pen for a closer watch. You need to do this to detect any signs of difficulty early enough to get appropriate help.

Calf management practices during parturition

Calving time is a critical time that can mean death or survival of the calf. Keep the mother as comfortable as possible. Provide a roomy space that is shielded from direct weather and ensure there is adequate supply of clean water.

When the cow is showing signs of difficultly, you may need to support it to calve down. Consult your vet if you don’t know what to do. Always inform the vet in prior that you are expecting your cow to calve down so that he/she can be available in case of a difficult birth.

Measures to help reduce chances of calf mortality:

  1. If the calf is not breathing, you can pour cold water on its head then hold it with the head facing down for about a minute. You can swing it gently from side to side during this time.
  2. Immediately after birth, remove the mucus from the calf’s nostrils if the mother has not licked it. You can slide a clean straw into the nostrils to initiate sneezing.
  3. Disinfect the navel by dipping it in iodine or copper sulphate solution. Maintain high levels of hygiene in the pen to avoid contamination that can introduce navel illness.
  4. Clean the calf and rub its body to generate heat and keep it warm.
  5. Clean the mother’s teats before allowing the calf to suckle.
  6. Ensure the calf gets colostrum within the first one hour after birth. In the next four hours, the calf should consume three liters of colostrum. Ensure that the calf gets a minimum of 10% its body weight in terms of colostrum intake within the first 12 hours of birth. Chances of death increases rapidly if the calf fails to get this first boost of colostrum.
  7. If you are force feeding the calf, ensure you use only high-quality replacers. Mixing of colostrum from different cows lowers quality due to the dilution effect. Additionally, the practice can introduce some strains of bacteria such as Mycobacterium avium subsp. paratuberculosis, which can have devastating effects on the herd.

Due to the nature of the cow’s placenta, the calf does not get all the factors of immunity as required. This means that the calf must get the necessary immunoglobulins soon after birth.

The rate of absorption of these immunoglobulins reduces drastically after 24 hours, which will lead to the death of the calf.

Calf management practices after parturition

Colostrum contains high concentrations of proteins, vitamins, energy, minerals and immunoglobulins. The low concentration of sugars in the colostrum makes it an ideal source of nutrients for the calf, as low sugar is less likely to cause scours.

The table below shows the composition of colostrum milk in the first three days versus normal Holstein milk.

ComponentsFirst colostrum (%)2nd & 3rd day colostrum (%)Normal Holstein milk (%)

Source: Alabama A&M And Auburn Universities

Calves are born with limited immunity, which they must boost through the colostrum in the first few hours of their lives. Failure to get colostrum will lead to death.

The colostrum bacteria and scours causing bacteria (e.g. E. coli) are competing for absorption in the calf’s gut wall. Whichever bacteria reaches there first will invade the ecosystem.

If scours causing bacteria reaches the gut first, they will manifest their devastating effects. However, if the colostrum bacteria reach the gut first, they will inhibit the absorption of the scours causing bacteria in the gut.

Ensure the calf get this precious nutrient within the first few hours after birth. The calf can suckle directly from the mother or you can bottle feed the calf. The culture of the colostrum should have less than 100,000 colony forming units (CFU) of total bacteria and less than 10,000 CFU of fecal coliforms.

Since most calves will not nurse their mothers naturally until after about eight hours, you should separate the calf from the mother and force feed it using a stomach pipe. This will help imparting the necessary nutrients to the young calf and boost its immunity soon after birth.

If you have a large herd and you have synchronized their parturition, you should preferentially feed the calves colostrum from older cows since they have developed sufficient immunity. You can use a colostometer or brix refractometer. You will be able to read the contents of the colostrum from the screen. The brix should be equal to or greater than 22%.

Managing navel/joint illness in calves

The navel presents an easy entry route into the calves’ system by bacteria that will cause illness to the young calf. You must make sure you take care of the calves’ navels.

Make sure you provide a hygienic parturition area for the cow to avoid contamination from the soil.

If by any chance bacteria finds their way int the navel, you may notice a swelling or an abscess on the navel. The sick calf will experience fever and dropped appetite.

The bacteria may also get into the bloodstream and settle in other parts of the body leading to localized illnesses at the sites of infection. You may notice that the calf has stiff or painful joints.

What to do when you notice these symptoms:

  • Separate the sick calf and administer painkillers and antibiotics according to your vet’s advice.
  • Abscesses may require surgical removal.

Prevention measures for navel/joint illness:

  • Ensure the calve’s pens are clean and decontaminated.
  • Apply disinfectant on the navel. Use at least 7% iodine solution for that purpose. Use a fresh preparation for each calf to avoid transmission of diseases among the calves. Navels of male calves tend to take longer that female calves to dry.

Managing scours in calves

Scours is a fairly common condition in calves that is manifested by loose watery feces. It is of a major concern to farmers that requires proper calf management practices because it can kill very quickly. The calf will be dehydrated, develop metabolic acidosis and have an electrolyte imbalance.

There are two forms of scours; infectious and non-infectious scours.

Infectious scours arise from bacterial, viral, or protozoan infections. They are the biggest concern and are better prevented than treated. Non-infectious scours can arise from either over-feeding the calf with milk or lack of a proper regular feeding program.

You should always contact your vet to ascertain the type of scours your calves are suffering from. The vet will be able to administer effective treatment for the calves and solve the situation completely.

Provide oral re-hydration salts (ORS) for the scouring calves.

Calf management practices to prevent scours in young stock:

  • Remove calves from their dams immediately after birth to avoid contamination with fecal matter.
  • Ensure you use only the best quality colostrum. Do not introduce dangerous bacteria to the calves
  • Isolate the calves from older animals to avoid chances of contagious contamination.
  • Clean and sanitize all the feeding equipment, holding pens, and housing areas. Ensure the houses are clean before you introduce the calves.
  • Use lots of hot water and a sanitizer (preferably chlorine) to wash the equipment such as bottles, buckets, nipples, esophageal feeders, and everything else that you use to feed and manage the calves.
  • Always feed and handle sick animals/calves last to avoid cross contamination of the entire stock. Each calf should use a clean feeding bottle every time. Never let the calves share feeding bottles before you sanitize it in between the two feeding sessions.
  • Provide plenty of clean water.

Antibiotic treatment for mastitic cows and calf management

There is a tight balance between feeding the calves on the milk from mastitic cows under antibiotic treatments.

Feeding the milk to the calves may introduce the bacterial strain that causes mastitis into the mouth of the calf where they will lay dormant until the calf transfers it elsewhere. Since calves like to simulate suckling when they are in a group, the bacteria will move from the mouth to the udder of the other calf.

Some of these bacteria are so adamant that they will lay dormant for years and wait for an opportunistic moment to cause mastitis. This could happen several years later when the calf has grown into a cow and is lactating.

To prevent this, you can keep the calves in individual pens to avoid cross contamination. You should also pasteurize the milk you feed the calves to kill off the pathogens.

On the other hand, feeding the calves on milk from cows under antibacterial treatment may lead to an increase in bacterial resistance. When this happens, the animals will not have any immunity over the new strain of bacteria. This will make the work of controlling that bacterial strain extremely difficult.

As you practice best calf management practices in your farm, your vet should be your best friend to advice you on critical issues such as this one.

Nutrition Management of Calves and Calf Weaning

You should restrict feed supplementation to about 10% of the calf’s body weight to encourage the calf to transition quickly into conventional feeding. This way, you will save a lot of money on starter feeds.

Weaning begins when the calves can eat solid foods, usually after four weeks but can go up to 10 weeks. You need to wean the calf fast to avoid incurring big production costs at the farm.

Calf management practices to implement at weaning for a successful transition

  • Ensure there is unlimited supply of clean water throughout the milk-feeding phase. This will help you ward off opportunistic pathogens.
  • On the third day after birth, introduce the calf to a dry starter. Start small and increase gradually. Ensure you clean the equipment you use to feed the calf immediately after use.
  • Use only high-quality ingredients to make the starter feed. Use only high-quality flour (not aflatoxin infested grain) to constitute the feed. Textured starters and pellets are attractive and easy to chew.
  • Incorporate monensin (Rumensin) or lasalocid (Bovatec) in the starter to prevent cases of coccidiosis. These two ingredients will also promote growth rate.
  • Delay hay until the fifth week and even then, feed only top-quality hay. This will help prevent cases of contamination and cross-contamination.

Weekly calf management practices summary

Here’s the recap of the weekly calf management practices you will be doing at the farm until the calf is ready for weaning.

Week one:

Feed colostrum for the first week. Augment colostrum feeding with other liquid feeds; use milk, milk replacers, and/or unsalable milk for this purpose. Test the calf with a minute amount of starter.

Week two:

Feed colostrum for the next four to five days. Continue with liquid feeding. Give the calves about 10 percent their body weight to encourage them to eat dry feed. Their gut is not well-formed, which restricts the amount of solid feeds they can take. Introduce starter gradually.

Week three:

Introduce high quality roughage. You can use pellets and legumes. Continue liquid feeding.

Week four onward:

Reduce the amount of liquid feeds gradually and increase the dry feeds. Throughout each of these stages, provide plenty of clean water for the calves.

Your calf is ready for full weaning once it has gained reasonable weight and can digest the feeds efficiently. Check the dung to ascertain this.

The tables below indicate the recommended formula for the calf starters.

Net Energy for Maintenance (Mcal/kg)1.90
Net Energy for Gain (Mcal/kg)1.20
Metabolizable Energy (Mcal/kg)3.78
Digestible Energy (Mcal/kg)4.19
Total Digestible Nutrients (% of dry matter)80
Crude Protein (% of dry matter)18
Fat (% of dry matter)3
 Calcium0.60%Iron50.0 ppm
 Phosphorus0.40%Cobalt0.1 ppm
 Magnesium0.10%Copper10.0 ppm
 Potassium0.65%Manganese40.0 ppm
 Sodium0.10%Zinc40.0 ppm
 Chlorine0.20%Iodine0.25 ppm
 Sulfur0.20%Selenium0.3 ppm
Vitamins 66 IU/kg dry matter  

Source: Tarleton State University

Auxiliary calf management practices

  •  Soon after birth, identify the calf with an ear tag or any other form of identification you choose to use in your farm. Identification will ease record keeping and monitoring.
  • Orally vaccinate the calf after birth to prevent scours. You may also need to vaccinate the calf with a clostridial vaccine to prevent blackleg.
  • De-horn the calf as soon as the horn buttons are visible. It is less stressful on the calf when you do it within the first month after birth.
  • Remove extra teats using a sterile equipment and apply an antiseptic to prevent infection. Take care while doing this so that you don’t end up chopping off the good teats.

Managing an Orphaned Calf

As a farmer, there are going to be instances where you have to raise an orphaned calf. This could be due to post-parturition death of the mother or harsh environmental conditions forcing you to separate the mother from the calf. In some cases, dams with poor mothering characteristics may reject the calf and you have to take the responsibility of ensuring that the calf is well taken care of.

These are some of the key routine management practices you should consider:

a) Feeding and nutrition

As we have already discussed, all newborn calves need the mother’s colostrum immediately after birth. Failure to do this and the calf risks death. Even if it survives despite not getting colostrum, it will have poor health and may not perform to its best potential.

Make sure the newborn orphaned calf gets colostrum, even if it is from another nursing cow or goat. Colostrum will infer immunity to the young calf and give it sufficient energy. It will also cause initial bowel movement and cause the calf to pass the meconeum.

Due to challenges of getting colostrum during an emergency, it is always a good practice to milk and freeze colostrum in your freezer for any emergency situation. Frozen colostrum will remain fit for use for up to one year, provided it has not been thawed.

However, once you thaw it, you must use all of it as soon as possible. Commercial colostrum can be bought from the store if you are unable to obtain any at your farm or neighboring farm. Frozen colostrum will be of far much better quality than any store bought colostrum replacer.

On amount to feed and frequency of feeding, the rule of thumb is 10% of the calf’s body weight per day. The quantity should be fed across the day at intervals of 2 -3 hours.

Making fake colostrum in extreme cases

In extreme cases, you may not be able to get access to either of these options. You may try to express any colostrum from the deceased mother soon after birth of the calf. If that is possible, then the only option you have left is to do anything you can to keep the calf alive, in which case you may try this recipe:

  • 1 litre of regular milk (should be warm – around the body temperature of a healthy cow)
  • 1 whole egg, beaten.
  • 1 tea spoon of Cod Liver Oil
  • 1 table spoon of sugar

Mix these ingredients in a feeding bottle and feed to the calf. If the calf cannot feed from the bottle yet, you can try oesophageal feeder.

Please note that this recipe does not contain the antibodies that colostrum has, so, it will not pass immunity to the calf. It will only provide fats, proteins, sugar and some vitamins and minerals to the young calf. Not the best but better than nothing. Good for keeping the calf alive.

There are reports of farmers who have used serum to transfer antibodies to the calves. You can discuss this option with your veterinarian.

Provide clean water

Water should be availed as soon as possible so that the calf learns from an early age that water is good and can be taken. They are quite inquisitive and will want to know what is in the container. The sooner you do it, the better because you will not have to retrain them at a later date to take water from a bucket/watering trough.

As soon as you are through with feeding the colostrum during the first 2 – 4 days, the other feeding procedures we discussed earlier can apply up to the time of weaning.

b) Housing

Separate the calf from the rest of the herd and place it in a clean secure environment. It should be shielded from extreme weather by putting it in a small pen. Such pens can be constructed at the farm using available materials or can be bought.

Calves are highly susceptible to cold weather, make sure to provide straw bedding in the calf pen. The straw should be changed regularly to maintain hygiene since unsanitary conditions can lead to infections and illnesses.

Since the calf needs vitamin D, do not completely shield it from accessing sunlight. You can put a small fence around its pen so that it can move around if it wants but not too much to expose it to danger.

c) Vaccinations and health management

Your calf will need vaccinations to boost the nutrients sufficient in its body at different stages of growth. The most notable ones include vitamins A, D, E as well as micro-nutrients such as selenium for farmers raising their herds in selenium deficient areas.

Make sure to keep a close eye on the calf for any signs of ill-health and consult your vet when you do so. Calves are vulnerable to respiratory and bowel illnesses and you should observe symptoms such as coughing, difficulty in breathing and even joint illness.

Make sure the calf’s coat is clean at all times and check for ticks, fleas, lice, etc. Spray appropriately to get rid of all bugs including mosquitoes and flies.

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