Dairy Channel: Seven deadly sins of raising calves


Last year, across the country, 10.6 percent of dairy heifer calves born alive died before calving.

According to the 2002 National Animal Health Monitoring Service report, the vast majority of that 10.6 percent, or 8.7 percent (give or take .2 percent to be statistically fair,) died before weaning. A fluke? A bad year? No.

Ashamed. The 1994 report pegged unweaned calf loss at 8.4 percent. This is an entirely appalling statistic, and each and every dairy farmer and heifer grower ought to be ashamed of it.

Consider that this is a national average, and the picture is both better and worse. It means that many farms can proudly say, “If she is born alive, almost without exception, she stays alive.”

On the flip side, that leaves too many farms where more than 10 percent death loss is apparently acceptable.

Economics. Economically, any farm that is literally throwing heifer calves away is throwing potential income down the drain. Those heifers could be sold at a week of age and net the farm a couple hundred dollars per head, minimum.

They could be raised and sold as unbred, bred or springing heifers. The net gain or loss to the farm would depend entirely on their ability to raise heifers economically and the going market value.

The animals could be raised and used to replace unproductive milking cows or increase the herd’s size. This is such a no-brainer.

Why? So why, on many farms, is heifer raising a problem? How can anyone find a 10 percent or greater death loss acceptable? When is 1 percent acceptable?

Perhaps it has “always been that way” and the farm doesn’t know any better. Perhaps the controller of the check book feels that calling the vet for a critically ill calf or making needed facility and equipment changes are a waste of money.

Perhaps there are some major health and management issues that they need help sorting out.

Fixing time. Whatever the reason, farms with high death loss (mortality) and/or calves that are always sick (morbidity) in their heifer herds must figure out how to fix the problem or get out of the business of raising heifers.

Where to start? Assume that the dry cow program is good and calves are born in a clean environment. Calves are fed enough good colostrum in a timely manner. Navels are dipped in iodine. What could go wrong after that?


1) Dirty equipment. Dirty equipment includes milk, grain or water buckets, milk bottles and nipples. Esophageal feeders are a frequent culprit.

Any equipment used to mix and deliver milk, water and feed to calves must be clean. Milk bottles, nipples and milk pails can be vectors of germs when not cleaned properly and allowed to dry.

Is there a big enough sink to easily clean these items?

Rinse everything in cold water to remove milk and slobber (where there are calves, there will be slobber!). Wash in hot, soapy water, rinse and let dry. Drying racks placed so that these items can dry as quickly as possible and not get contaminated are a priority.

Stacked pails do not dry properly!

2) Starvation. This is another whole column.

Calves have to get enough feed in order to grow and fight off pathogens that are around on any farm. For the first few weeks of life, the only significant nutrition a calf receives is from milk or milk replacer.

Don’t feed them enough and yes, they will start picking at grain, but their rumen needs several weeks of exposure to grain to begin to develop enough that they receive any significant nutrition from the grain.

Adverse weather conditions increase the levels of nutrients needed just to maintain the body, let alone to support growth.

Feed them! Think 10 percent of body weight. Bigger calves need more feed.

3) Dirty bedding. No unweaned calf should ever have manure spots or wet spots on their bodies. Period. If they do, its time for fresh bedding.

I’m not keen on weaned heifers running around with manure packs on their flanks or bellies either.

Either situation, besides being ugly, compromises a calf’s ability to keep themselves warm or cool, depending on the season.

If the stalls or hutches can’t be kept clean, is it the facility (such as the 3-by-3-foot cubes that are being used as hutches at a Jersey farm – absolutely too small) that is ultimately causing the problem, poor bedding material or a lazy bedder?

4) Not letting go. Never letting go… of facilities that should have been retired two to 100 years ago.

It is hard to not use existing buildings, even if Grandpa built that shed 60 years ago. Just because it is there does not make it a good place to raise calves.

Sometimes we have to walk away from facilities because of impossible ventilation, pathogen load, dampness, poor lighting (yes, you can turn on the lights to feed, but are they left on at least eight hours a day or do you raise cave calves?) etc.

There are folks doing exceptional jobs raising calves in converted bank barns, chicken houses, grain buildings.

Others need to walk away and use hutches or other acceptable buildings if they want to keep calves alive.

5) Head in sand. Not caring/not seeing/ ignorance.

Some people have a talent for raising calves because they really look at their calves. They care how the calves are doing, and if something is not quite right they do something about it.

Yes, someone who doesn’t really care can be trained to follow procedures for calf care. But will they see, care and do for the calf that isn’t quite right at feeding? Check back to see if they are improving or if they need some type of treatment?

If it isn’t your calf feeder’s cup of tea, find the person who will.

6) Dehydration. A result of No. 5. Once a calf is allowed to dehydrate, all bets are off.

Calves that don’t eat have to be helped. Why aren’t they eating? Scours, fever, respiratory distress or plain old orneriness?

A good calf feeder will evaluate the calf and decide to try feeding them again in an hour or so, supplement with electrolytes if needed, feed them with a clean esophageal feeder or, in extreme cases, begin intravenous fluid therapy.

7) No action. Even the best calf feeders will run up against outbreaks of disease and death. The difference between the 1-percent and 10-percent farms is what they do about it.

Even a single death needs to be questioned. Why did the calf die? What were the symptoms? Did she have a birth defect?

Perform an autopsy. Pay the vet to do one, and culture what needs to be cultured.

Good help. In Ohio, we are blessed with good dairy veterinarians, extension folks, the OSU veterinary hospital, pathology labs at the Ohio Department of Agriculture and researchers at the Food Animal Health and Research Program in Wooster who are all willing to help sort out problems. They can’t help if they aren’t asked.

Choice. Healthy calves grow into healthy heifers, get bred on time and become a healthy milking herd.

Sick calves struggle, slowly grow into heifers, hopefully get bred and enter the milking herd usually well after two years of age.

The first herd will have productive animals to sell or increase herd size. The second herd likely falls into the classification of the “perpetually struggling.”

Which do you want to be? The choice is yours.

(The author is the northeast Ohio district dairy specialist with OSU Extension. Send comments or questions in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460.)


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