January 6, 2013

Off to a good start

Peter Hagar, Agriculture Educator

— As winter finally arrived in force and the pastures begin to disappear under an extra thick blanket of snow, I am already looking forward to spring. Winter can be hard on the farm; frozen pipes, broken machinery and snow-removal chores can make a “short” winter day really long.

My beef cows are pretty tough, wintering outside in the cover of pine trees, but they will soon start to get restless from being cooped up and eating dry hay all winter. Come springtime, the pastures will be filled with new calves and their protective mothers.

While beef calves are typically raised on pasture nursing on their mothers, dairy calves depend on the farmer to provide food, shelter and other care needed to keep them healthy and growing well. The cold weather makes proper calf care even more important. Raising healthy calves is the goal of every farmer and maintaining a consistent and high-quality care regimen is crucial.

Last year I attended a presentation by Dr. Sam Leadley, a highly regarded consultant on calf and heifer management. Dr. Leadley participated in developing the Dairy Calf and Heifer Association Gold Standards for calf care. The Gold Standards give dairy farmers and calf raisers guidelines by which calf mortality and illness can be reduced and future cow performance can be enhanced.

Record keeping of birth dates, weights, growth rate and treatment for illness are all important to manage for desired goals. The Gold Standards aim is to have calves double in weight by 60 days.

The key to a good start is to be sure that high-quality colostrum is fed to every calf in the first four hours of its life. High quality is of utmost importance. The maternal antibodies that colostrum provides can be overwhelmed by disease-causing bacteria if proper washing, stripping and dipping procedures are not carried out.

Dr. Leadley stressed that since the cow has not been milking in some time, teat ends usually need extra attention to avoid contamination during the first milking. Once obtained, extra colostrum needs to be cooled rapidly and can be frozen for future use in cases where good colostrum is not available. One useful tip given was to freeze colostrum in large zip style freezer bags, but only one quart at a time to speed thawing time.

Once calves have made the transition to regular milk or milk replacer, calves should be moved to clean, dry, draft-free housing with good air quality and enough room so the calf can turn around. Tying calves up in the manger of a steamy, damp, poorly ventilated cow barn is just asking for trouble in the form of scours and pneumonia.

Preventing pneumonia at an early age will protect the calf from lung damage that can haunt them into adulthood by reducing growth rates and age at first breeding as well as future milk production. Another tip from Dr. Leadley was the importance of follow through when treating pneumonia or scours. Treatment should be administered as recommended for the full regimen to avoid reoccurrence of the disease and the possibility of mortality or resistance to future treatment.

Once off to a good start, calves should be fed a high-quality diet designed to keep them growing, healthy and happy. Being creatures of habit, calves do best with consistent care and familiar faces. Keep this in mind during the cold winter season and try limiting calf care to a small group of staff.

While most calves have traditionally been individually raised in hutches or pens, there has been an increased interest in calf group housing, automatic feeders, accelerated feeding and calf management in general. For farmers who were unable to attend the recent Pro-Dairy Group Housed Calf Systems Symposium in Syracuse, Cornell Cooperative Extension’s regional dairy specialist, Kim Morrill, will be holding an on-farm Calf Management Discussion on Tuesday at 11 a.m. at the Rusty Creek Farm in Chazy.

Registration is not required, but if you would like directions and more information, contact Peter Hagar, CCE ag educator at 561-7450 or email

Peter Hagar is an agricultural educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension in Clinton County