At a Glance – Proper calf care immediately after birth is critical not only to raising healthy replacement heifers but also can help prevent calf health issues. Take these steps to maximize efficiency and ensure your calves receive the best care possible.

Perhaps you are sitting at your desk evaluating the past few years and thinking about the future. These past years have not been the most favorable for the dairy industry: Milk prices are down, calf prices are at their lowest in years, and employees don’t exactly come “free” these days. So how can you make the coming years more successful than the previous ones? The answer starts in your maternity area.

Effective calf care in the maternity area helps to reduce calf health issues

Increasing efficiency in the maternity area starts with the employees. They are the biggest asset a business has, and nowhere is this more true than in the maternity area of a dairy. This is where the most elite employees can be found. These are your calf heroes. They help newborns come into the world and get them off to the right start. We ask so much of them. Isn’t it time to lighten their load so they can really focus on what they are good at? Here are five tips to ensure your dairy runs more efficiently and takes better advantage of your employees’ strengths.

1. Every step counts

Keep all materials and supplies near the calving pens to help with time efficiency. Every minute spent walking to another building or in the skid steer takes away from the time that could be spent cleaning, walking close-up pens, or most importantly, taking care of the newborn calves properly. Ideally, there should be a designated spot, large enough for a few days or weeks worth of bedding, lime, and cleaning tools. The newborn feeding supplies and colostrum management equipment also deserve a special clean place located close to the maternity pen. Having everything your employees need a few steps away can help reduce the likelihood of them not getting to a calf in distress in time.

Prevent calves dying at birth begins in the maternity area

2. Efficient close-up pen design

All pens on the dairy are, typically, designed the same. This should not be the case. It is important to design the close-up pen with features that will help the employee move the laboring cow or heifer into the calving pen. This will save on time and reduce unnecessary stress on the animal. Stress and lack of oxygen during calving can result in calves having issues at the start of their life. Here are a few ideas to consider:

  • If you are going to separate heifers from cows, house the heifers closest to the calving pens. Cows are used to being handled and will follow your direction. Heifers are new to the handling/moving system. Trying to move a heifer through multiple locked gates and between other animals before getting to the fresh pen when she is already in distress is a difficult proposition for even a seasoned maternity worker.
  • Have easy-to-open gate latches. Try not to have anything with chains that need to be undone before the gate will open. Having a quick gate latch will help the employee open and close the gate while they are moving the animal to the calving pen.
  • Keep the area clear of scary objects. Having a clear path from the closeup pen to the calving pens will help keep stress down. Any grates or step-downs that are in that path will slow down the cow or heifer’s forward momentum and bring stress on the animal and employee.
Prevent Calf Sickness and Protect Future Profits: The 5-Step checklist for better calf health by Golden Calf Company

3. Pick the right equipment for the job

As dairymen and dairywomen, we sometimes feel the need to improvise in order to save a few “bucks,” even if it brings some setbacks. Don’t let yourself be fooled, however, because it is not worth it. The tools designed by industry professionals are made to handle everyday farm use and to be the most efficient for given tasks. It is especially important to do things the right way in the maternity area. If you’re cutting corners with your calves under 10 days old, your calves will show it. If you are seeing newborn calf health problems or calves dying within the first few weeks, it is important to look “upstream” to determine where the problem is coming from. Here are some items not to skimp on:

  • Colostrum storage bags: These bags are designed a specific way to keep your freshly harvested colostrum sterile and your maternity area clean. Many have experienced the disappointment of opening up the freezer to see a colostrum-storing Zip-loc bag had exploded or having to pull another employee from their duties to fill these Zip-loc bags because there is no easy way of doing it by yourself.
  • Colostrum thawing/warming units: Your kitchen or cleaning sink is not a good substitute for a colostrum thaw unit. The sink cannot monitor temperature and therefore cannot bring colostrum up to 103ºF, the ideal feeding temperature, correctly. The water in the sink is often too hot, ruining the best batches of your colostrum – and potentially burning the calf’s esophagus – or too cold, never having fully thawed out the colostrum, causing the calf stress and reducing its ability to uptake immunoglobulins. As most sinks don’t come equipped with thermostats, the temperature will quickly cool off to the ideal temp for bacterial growth, defying the purpose of colostrum. And last but not least, it is a very manual process that is not conducive to a good workflow. Either it requires constant employee attention, taking temperature measurements and stirring, or complete lack of attention, resulting in poor care of the calf.
  • Bottle nipples: These are designed to resemble the cow’s teat. It is critical to replace them regularly. When the milk is dripping out while a bottle is upside-down, it is a good indicator that the hole is too big. Never intentionally cut off the ends of a nipple in hopes of a faster feeding. A calf is unable to keep up with such a fast flow of colostrum or milk and will aspirate some of it. What was supposed to save two minutes will now negatively affect the calf for the rest of its life. It will be forever prone to pneumonia and, in the end, cost the dairy more money in employee time and treatment costs.
The right tools to prevent calves dying at birth

4. Take advantage of today’s technology

Taking advantage of today’s technology will help your dairy run smoothly and efficiently. Take a look at technology to help your dairy save money and take advantage of your employees’ skills:

  • “Smart” colostrum pasteurizers/ thaw units: These possess the ability to text or email information to us. These units can notify you when your meals are ready for feeding or done pasteurizing. Again, this is to help remind your calf employees when meals are done, even when they are outperforming another task. They will no longer have to walk back and forth to see if the colostrum is ready, again saving on steps and giving them an extra minute or two for cleaning or walking that close-up pen.
  • Digital refractometers: This technology reduces user error. You no longer have to wait for your colostrum to hit a certain temperature before testing its quality. If you have the dip-style refractometer, you can test right after collection so the colostrum can be processed right away and decrease the chances of it being forgotten.
  • Colostrum-feeding equipment: Think ergonomics and choose equipment that is less likely to tire out your employees. Set up protocols that are conducive to the workflow. Look at the variety of colostrum equipment currently available and decide which type is best for you and your employees. Whatever kind you choose, make sure it’s easy to keep the nipple or tube feeder off the ground while adjusting the calf. Have the same number of tube feeders/nipple feeders on hand as you have calvings on a busy day. That way no one has to worry about having to wash tools every time a calf is born.

5. Keep it simple

Don’t get carried away with your protocols. Keep things simple and consistent. Having too many rules will make your calf employees stop and second-guess themselves. This breaks up the flow in daily protocols and increases the likelihood of mistakes.

Your comments and questions are always welcomed, let us know what you think, how do you implement calf protocols on your dairy, or what other topics you’d like us to address next.
Andy Beckel
President and Owner of Golden Calf Company

Prevent Calf Sickness and Protect Future Profits: The 5-Step checklist for better calf health by Golden Calf Company