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Extension > Agriculture > Dairy Extension > Calves and heifers > The "ABCDEFGs" for healthy calves

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The "ABCDEFGs" for healthy calves

Neil Broadwater, Extension Educator-Dairy


Raising healthy calves is a challenging job as dairies try to minimize death and disease losses and raise quality replacements for the herd. According to the August 30, 2004 Minnesota DHIA Calf Report, the yearly death loss for calves from all DHIA herds is 11% from first lactation heifers, 6.5% for second lactation cows, 8.3% from third lactation cows, all calculating out to a 8.3% death rate from all lactating animals. Management factors do influence the illness and death rates of calves. However, producers do not have to accept high rates as routine. Preventing disease in newborn calves gets them off to a good start, reduces death losses, and is cheaper than treating sick animals. The two diseases that cause the greatest morbidity and mortality in young calves are Scours and Pneumonia. These diseases can have lifelong impacts. Even if a calf survives a disease or sickness, what is its potential for reaching proper weight at the proper time for calving and being successful in the dairy herd?

There is no single best way to raise calves, as all sorts of combinations of feeding, housing and management can be successful in the right hands and on the right farm. A system that works well on one farm may fail on another. A calf raising management plan must include all factors which are interrelated, such as nutrition, health care, growth, labor efficiency, capital and operation and maintenance costs. However, thrifty calves cannot be raised efficiently in poor facilities with inadequate animal husbandry. By understanding the scientific principles of calf growth, nutrition, health and behavior, producers can develop a management system that is successful on their own farm. Therefore, the only solution to address calf raising problems is for producers to review the “fundamentals” of calf management. The following “ABCDEFGs” are important considerations for that evaluation. If followed, they will greatly decrease the exposure of the calves to disease organisms and improve their health, survivability and growth rates. They can be applied to every calf raising situation on every farm, whatever size operation.

Attention to detail

When it comes to raising dairy calves, close attention needs to be paid to all calf management practices. And, it takes a truly concerned attitude and a "caring eye" to see that a dairy calf’s every day needs are being met. Pay attention these details:


Bedding plays a significant role in calf comfort. Bedding management is important during the critical early preweaning stage of a calf’s life. A generous, dry bed of fluffy material for calves can provide a cushioned resting surface, help calves stay clean, act as a moisture absorption media, decrease the risks of contracting disease, and reduce stress. Some points to keep in mind include:


Dirty calves become sick calves. Maintaining a clean environment decreases the number of bacteria and other pathogens which the calf's immune system must overcome. Energy used fighting muddy conditions, excessively hot conditions, or high numbers of bacteria is energy which is no longer available for growth and maturing. An ideal calf environment needs to be easy to clean.


Calves are more comfortable when dry. Viruses and bacteria don't grow as well in a dry environment. Calves can stand lower temperatures provided they are protected from the elements and their pens are kept dry.


The calf's environment includes the type of housing, space available, the quality of the air, and the surfaces with which the animal comes into contact with. Calves are surrounded by disease-producing organisms in their environment and if present in large enough numbers they will cause illness. Keep in mind the following:

Adequate ventilation

Control drafts



Control humidity


Feeding utensils

Time must be allowed during the calf chore routine for washing and sanitizing the calf feeding equipment. Milk, feed, and water buckets are breeding grounds for organisms that cause calf diseases. Any utensil used for feeding calves must be cleaned after each feeding to prevent problems. If calves are fed with bottles, nipples, or pails that have been only “rinsed-off” the previous feeding, then there is the potential of feeding them all kinds of harmful bacteria. A good wash-up job means low bacteria concentrations on feeding equipment each time it is used. That means clean, wholesome and nutritious feed and healthy calves. Take the following steps to reduce feeding utensils as major sources of contamination:

calf in pen

Growth success

Dairy producers need to judge the success of their calf raising not only by the percent survival to weaning and beyond, but also by the growth rates of the calves. This is because the growth rate of dairy replacements ultimately affects the timing of puberty, which affects the age of first freshening, and even first lactation milk production. Calf diseases set the calf back in regard to growth rate and often create chronic conditions that will never allow the animal to reach its full genetic potential. Previously sick (but recovered) calves more than likely will lag behind healthy herdmates by weeks or even months. In addition, if their illness was severe enough or long standing, permanent damage and/or chronic pain may be present which will ultimately result in these animals becoming economic liabilities. Properly raised calves will be healthy, vigorous, and ready to freshen between 22 and 24 months. Consider these points:

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