The Importance of Management Systems to Your Calves’ Health

Published on Tue, 07/10/2018 - 2:41pm

 The Importance of Management Systems to Your Calves’ Health

 by Bruce Derksen

A key for a dairy calf to begin a healthy productive life is the proper amount of quality colostrum delivered at the correct time enhancing the ability to develop immunity to disease.  Assuming that this has taken place, there are some management practices that can be used including vaccinations, parasite and fly control, bio-security, consistency, isolation, stress control and cleanliness to enhance the chances of a calf continuing to enjoy a healthy, stress free, productive life.  
Generally speaking, a dairy calf’s good health throughout their life should be enough to deliver the desired result.  A good first step toward this goal is a vaccination program, but even though it would be so much easier, there really is no such thing as a universal vaccination system.  Each farm, area and herd is different and a plan must be tailored specifically to each dairy’s unique needs and requirements. From the moment of birth, calves are exposed to infectious organisms, and their natural defence mechanisms are designed to block the establishment of disease, but things don’t always go the way they are planned and at times sickness will take hold.  Be on guard against scours and regularly check your calves body temperatures to assist in the observations and diagnosis of potential clinical problems like pneumonia and work with your veterinarian to establish a vaccination plan designed for your farm’s needs.

Through the summer season, heat stress can weaken a calf’s immunity and make them susceptible to bacterial infections.  Calves do best when their thermal environment is between approximately 55 F and 78 F.  Above this temperature they use more energy to reduce body heat through sweating and increased respiratory rate causing feed intake to drop which in turn directs less of the nutrients ingested to assist in growth rate.  If using hutches, make sure they are designed to keep calves dry and protected from environmental conditions along with having proper air flow keeping them cooler in the hot summer and allowing for solar heating with protection from winds and drafts in the colder winter months.

Overall cleanliness and proper bedding is extremely important in a calf’s fight against disease.  Straw is a fine bedding material but will usually present a higher fly and parasite infestation.  Sand and shavings will keep calves cooler with less fly issues but will not control moisture as well as straw.  Whatever choice suits your operation, make sure the bedding is changed often, stalls, pens and hutches are disinfected and dried and ensure any organic materials are removed, especially between different calves.  Concentrate on feed and water areas to control fly populations and if necessary improve drainage to eliminate water required for maggot growth.

Bio-security and isolation for young calves by limiting access to designated care givers will help control the spread of disease from different farms or areas of your own dairy.  Calves of diverse ages possess varying degrees of disease resistance so try to limit physical contact between older and younger calves through the first three to four months of life.  Keep hutches far enough apart to prohibit intermingling of calves and design them for easy cleaning and sanitizing, convenient access to feed and water, and open to a care giver’s observation promoting a stress free and comfortable situation for each calf. 

Take the time and effort to be organized with a good record keeping process that allows all workers to be aware of vaccination and treatment information pertinent to the health of each animal, plus any other valuable information that could affect the calves well -being.  

All these basic management practices can have a drastic effect on the health of dairy calves so have an honest, realistic look at your operation and try to recognize what you are doing well and also what might be improved.  Although it’s not feasible and realistic for every dairy to be able to use each and every management skill mentioned or otherwise discovered, even a small step in the right direction can yield dividends.  In a concerned world that wants assurance of proper care of our animals, it’s important we use good management practices promoting the dairy industry in the best possible light.