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Basic care practices for healthy calves

Quick facts

Using basic care practices daily can reduce calf illness and death on your farm. Managing heifer calves can help you make sure they:

  • Enter the milking herd quickly.
  • Become strong, healthy and high-producing cows.
Long row of white calf hutches with calves coming out of them in front of stacked hay bales in winter.

There’s no single best way to raise calves. What works on one farm may not be ideal for another farm. But you should have and enforce a newborn protocol and calf care plan that remains consistent from day to day. Proper management can greatly reduce the illness and death rates of calves.

Poor facilities and improper animal care make raising healthy calves impossible. Recognizing this and understanding calf growth, nutrition, health and behavior can help you successfully care for your calves.

The following practices for raising calves can:

  • Decrease the exposure of calves to disease.

  • Improve calf health.

  • Improve calf survival rates.

  • Improve growth rates.

Calf growth

Use both survival and growth rates to measure calf-raising success. Dairy replacement growth rates ultimately affect the timing of puberty. This affects the age of first freshening and lactation milk production.

Properly raised calves will be healthy and ready to freshen between 22 and 24 months.

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Preventing disease

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Calf feeding practices

Following birth:

  • Clean the cow’s teats before the calf nurses or remove the calf from the cow and maternity area right away.

  • Manually feed calves high-quality colostrum as soon as possible.

Provide fresh, clean calf starter, milk replacer and water every day. Make sure you offer water at least twice daily. Place these outside the pen to reduce urine and manure contamination. This will also keep spilled liquid feed and water away from the calf’s bedding.

During the preweaning period, make sure the calves’ diet (liquid feed, forage, and grain) are all high quality. Research shows poor nutrition between weaning and 6 months of age can cause these animals to have on average,

  • A 4.5-month delay in age at first calving

  • Reduced growth rate

  • Increased risk of being culled as a cow

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Housing

Calf outside of its hutch surrounded by a wire pen in winter.

Calf housing should be completely separate from the main dairy housing barn and have separate ventilation. Keep ventilation inlets and windows screened at all times to control flies.

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Bedding

Bedding plays a key role in calf comfort. Managing bedding during early preweaning is important. An ample, dry bed of fluffy material can:

  • Provide a cushioned resting surface.

  • Help calves stay clean.

  • Act as a moisture absorption media.

  • Decrease the risks of disease.

  • Reduce stress.

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Environment

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Jim Salfer, Extension educator, and Neil Broadwater

Reviewed in 2020

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