Basic care practices for healthy calves


Source: University of Minnesota

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.

Disease can harm a calf’s growth rate and create chronic problems that limit the calf from reaching full genetic potential. Calves that have recovered from illness will likely lag behind healthy herdmates by weeks or months. If their illness was severe enough or long term, permanent damage or chronic pain may result in these animals becoming economic risks.

Heifer target growth curves are available by breed.

  • Measure and record heart girth and wither height in inches.

  • Weigh calves using a scale or regular tape measure.

  • Check height using a yardstick or altimeter stick with parallel level bar.

  • Calculate:

    • Average daily gain (ADG)

    • Percent of weight-gain goal for each heifer

    • Averages for the group

  • Graph the number of heifer calves with weights above or below optimum by age. A computer program can help you with this.

  • More dystocias (obstructed birth) and maternal problems or death.

  • More calf deaths.

  • Decreased production of heifers (energy demands for growth vs.

In Holsteins, for each pound of body weight less than 1250 pounds at first calving, milk decreases by 6 pounds per lactation. For example, a heifer weighing 1050 pounds at calving (200 pounds less than a 1250-pound goal) would produce 1200 pounds less milk that lactation.

  • Decreased lifetime milk production of the animal.

  • Decrease in the number of heifers for replacement, which limits culling ability or increases the need to buy replacements.

  • Increased growth days results in higher heifer rearing costs prior to her first entry into the milking herd.

Preventing disease

Changes in routine can cause stress in calves. When animals become stressed, they are more likely to get sick. Feed changes, housing changes and crowding can stress calves and cause digestive upset and scours.

Other stressors include:

  • Ear tagging

  • Dehorning/disbudding

  • Transporting

  • Improper handling of calves

Have a biosecurity program. Control and monitor all livestock, equipment and people entering your calf facility. Seek advice from your local veterinarian in planning your disease prevention and treatment program.


  • Wash your hands in a sterilizing solution before handling individual calves.

  • Always wear clean clothes and boots when working with calves.

  • Don’t use equipment or share feeding utensils between animals or pens without sanitizing them first.

  • Have the same person(s) handle the cows daily to reduce disease transmission between animals.

Monitoring calves

  • Use a rectal thermometer regularly to help detect early fever in sick calves. The normal body temperature for calves is 101.5 F.

  • Separate calves so they can’t make physical contact with each other. This will allow you to watch calves individually during the crucial pre-weaning stage. Or monitor them closely if they are group housed prior to weaning.

Additional biosecurity practices

  • Routinely evaluate your vaccination program but don’t depend on vaccinations alone to solve disease problems.

  • Manage infection sources, especially feces. Water, feed utensils, rodents, birds, pets or people can also be sources of infection.

  • Deliver the calf on to a clean plastic sheet rather than into bedding.

  • After a calf is born, rub it dry with clean cloths. Don’t use bedding or feed bags. Wipe the nostrils free of mucus.

  • Always remove calves right away from the cow, urine, and feces.

  • When doing chores, work from the youngest to oldest animals.

  • Isolate sick calves and feed and handle them last.

  • Use individual maternity pens and sanitize them between calving. This includes removing bedding, manure, and other material from previous births. Each cow that enters the maternity pen brings in pathogens.

  • Prevent the spread of Johne’s Disease. Johne’s disease occurs when calves eat contaminated feces or colostrums. Properly managing newborn calves can reduce disease risk.

  • Wash, disinfect and dry individual hutches, stalls or pens between calves. Scrape the ground to a fresh level of dirt and remove all leftover organic material.

Forestomach acidosis

Milk can rapidly ferment and cause acidosis if it ends up in the reticulorumen. When calves are born, they are essentially simple stomached animals without a functioning rumen.

  • In newborn calves, the rumen contains a structure called the esophageal groove. The closure of the esophageal groove sends liquid feeds directly into the abomasum.
  • If the esophageal groove does not close properly there is potential for milk to be deposited in the reticulorumen.
  • The esophageal groove opens because of low quality milk replacer, irregular feeding times and cold milk temperatures.

Another potential reason for forestomach acidosis is feeding more milk then the abomasum can hold. Many farms have a policy to tube every newborn calf with one gallon of colostrum shortly after birth. This is a good guideline for average size Holstein calves weighing 85 to 95 pounds.

Calves born early (Jerseys) and many crossbred calves are much smaller than Holsteins. Smaller calves have smaller abomasa and are at high risk of milk reflux. A better guideline is to only tube colostrum at 10 percent of a calf’s birth weight. Only tube colostrum once and follow up with a bottle.

Poor sanitation

Everything the calf comes in contact with should be clean and dry, especially the bottles and buckets.

To properly clean feeding equipment:

  1. Rinse off dirt and milk residue with lukewarm water.
  2. Manually scrub with a brush using hot water. Use a chlorinated alkaline detergent.
  3. Rinse with warm water in an acid solution.
  4. Let dry.
  5. Sanitize with a 50 parts per million solution of chloride dioxide within two hours of use.

Following these steps and using the correct soaps and acid will emulsify the fats and break down the carbohydrates and proteins. It is important to have the correct size and shape of brushes to clean bottles and especially esophageal tubes. Equipment will not get clean by just rinsing with hot or soapy water. Do not forget to replace brushes on a regular basis. They also can get dirty and harbor pathogenic bacteria.

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

You can prevent feed waste by using large buckets and placing them at the proper height according to breed and calf size. Don’t feed leftover grain from individual calf buckets to other calves in individual housing or to any calf under 6 months of age.

Store your calves’ grain in a place where you can prevent rodent problems. Store grain delivered in bulk within a metal bin, which you can move electrically by auger. Walk-in grain rooms tend to be feeding spots for rodents.

Milk, feed and water buckets are breeding grounds for pathogens, disease-causing organisms. Thus, you should have a routine plan for washing and sanitizing utensils during calf chores.

  • Thoroughly clean and disinfect all feeding utensils after each use.

  • Avoid using feed buckets with scratches (plastic) or rough surfaces that allow bacteria to grow on them.

  • Have enough utensils so you can clean and disinfect them between uses, especially with sick calves. Always disinfect shared nipples or buckets between calves.

    • Use chlorhexidine (3 ounces per gallon) to disinfect during feeding.

    • Don’t use a dairy chlorine sanitizer. Milk residue inactivates the chlorine and leads to poor disinfection.

  • Sanitize balling guns and stomach tubes with chlorhexidine (3 ounces per gallon). Avoid using common esophageal feeders for tubing newborn calves with colostrum and sick calves with fluids.

  • Keep feed, feed areas and feeding utensils free of manure. Make sure boots, tools, and equipment are clean.

  • Be aware of your utensil storage area. Most storage areas are ideal for bacterial growth—moist, no sunlight, poor air flow. Research shows that these conditions allow bacteria to reproduce at least once an hour and often twice in the same time.

Cleaning procedure for utensils

  1. Rinse containers with lukewarm water before washing. Hot water makes the milk proteins stick to the surfaces.

  2. Rinse with as hot of water as possible, at least 120 F.

  3. Use a water-bleach solution for washing: 1 cup of household-strength bleach to 5 gallons of hot water. If you have calves with scours, use 1.5 cups to 5 gallons.

  4. Soak utensils in water-bleach solution for as long as possible. The longer the utensils soak, the more bacteria the chlorine will kill.

    • When pouring from pail to pail, let the solution sit in each pail for as long as possible.

    • Soak nipples in the solution.

    • Fill the bottles with the solution.

  5. Use a wash acid at about 1 ounce to 5 gallons of lukewarm water. This will rid containers of remaining milk solids. A lower surface pH prevents most bacteria from growing.

  6. Allow containers to completely dry between uses.

    • Avoid stacking pails inside each other until fully dry.

    • Never set freshly washed pails upside down on a concrete floor. Hang them up.


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.


Calf hutches should:

  • Provide maximum air flow.
  • Protect the calf from weather elements including the sun in the summer months.
  • Allow warmth from the sun in the winter months.
  • Allow calves easy access to feed and water.
  • Allow for easy cleaning and sanitizing.

Keep hutches far enough apart so that calves can’t come into contact with each other. Also be sure the hutches drain water and urine, so the calves stay dry. It’s better to have the hutch or hutch area slope slightly away from the hutch than for it to be wet.

The “super calf hutch” or “counter slope barn” designs are ideal for grouping and feeding calves after weaning. They are also easy to clean.


  • Open-front shelters with individual pens should be easy to access with a skid-steer loader or small bucket tractor when cleaning.
  • In cold weather
    • Place a plywood cover over the rear part of the pen to reduce drafts and to keep in the calf’s heat.
  • In warm or hot weather:
    • Use a removable panel at the back of the shelter and open it to provide more air flow.
  • Select shelters with upright or nearly upright sidewalls to reduce leaks from runoff. Move the pens further in if rain or snow blows inside.
  • Place the shelter where it can catch the wind in the summer and the sunlight in the winter.


Monitor air temperature and quality throughout the day in greenhouses. This will allow you to adjust the natural ventilation as needed to make the environment good for calves.

Move pens away from the sidewalls if rain or snow blows in. Using a well-graded stone base will promote draining.

Disease resistance differs between calves of different ages. Thus, don’t allow older and younger calves to have physical contact during the first three to four months of age.

Group post-weaned calves by age and size with three to five animals per group. Groups of 6 to 12 are ok when calves reach about 4 months of age. This approach lessens the calve’s competition for feed.

Large-group pen housing increases the odds of respiratory disease and diarrhea. It’s natural for calves to lie next to each other. Thus, calves of different ages in large groups are more prone to respiratory illness. Diarrhea in group housing is more severe than cases in individual housing.

Whether cleaning calf pens or hutches the same principles apply. Make modifications based on amount of manure and bedding.

  1. Take apart pens and hutches and move to a clean area. Don’t use power washers inside any calf or cow housing facility. Power washers can aerosolize pathogens increasing the risk of disease spread.
  2. Remove all manure, bedding and feed from housing area. Don’t forget about floors in calf barns. Alleys between calf pens are often neglected and can harbor disease-causing organisms.
  3. Soak all surfaces with water to loosen up any dried-on organic material.
  4. Scrub or foam with an alkaline soap.
  5. Rinse with water.
  6. Scrub or foam with an acid cleaner.
  7. Rinse with water.
  8. Dry. It is best if panels or hutches can be dried in the sun. This will help kill bacteria and they will dry faster.


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.

Overall, bedding types don’t affect average daily gain and dry matter intake of calves with proper management. There are many types of bedding including:

  • Straw

  • Shavings

  • Sawdust

  • Sand

  • Gravel

Fly control

Of the bedding types, straw promotes the highest fly populations.

Sawdust is less desirable for maggot growth because it

  • Poorly absorbs liquid.

  • Has little organic matter.

  • Is harder to breakdown.


Sand and gravel bedding tend to compact and get dirty after a few weeks. Adding fresh
straw over soiled bedding will keep the calf comfortable. But this will allow the bedding to hold more moisture and possibly ferment.

Shavings and sawdust differ in size, which can affect animal comfort and productivity. Thus, you should use a reputable supplier for bedding.

A clean living space reduces the number of pathogens the calf must overcome. In dirty conditions, calves use energy to fight mud, heat or pathogens. In clean conditions, calves can use this energy for growth and maturing instead.

  • Check calf bedding regularly to make sure it isn’t constantly wet. Pathogens don’t do as well in dry environments.

  • Remove soiled bedding and manure from pens and add fresh bedding to keep beds clean and dry.

    • Don’t walk or use equipment between pens and animals. People and equipment can spread disease.

  • Always replace bedding between calves.

Provide deep bedding if your hutches are directly on the ground or other solid surface.


Proper ventilation moves air and provides fresh air to:

  • Remove organisms from the environment.

  • Lessen dust.

  • Remove harmful odors.

  • Remove extra moisture in the winter and heat in the summer.

  • Provide cleaner environment for animals and people.

  • Allows buildings to last longer.

Poor ventilation can cause a build-up of compounds that may:

  • Impair a calf’s immune response.

  • Cause respiratory problems.

  • Make the calf more prone to pathogens.

  • Reduce feed intake and conversion rates.

A small investment in switches, thermostats and timers may pay off by keeping control of the environment even when workers aren’t around.

Too much air flow in the calves’ environment can chill the calf, which takes energy away from growth. In cold weather, check for drafts and adjust or repair the sources as needed.

Calves housed outside should be able to move out of the elements and away from drafts. Hutches should allow steady air flow without draft.

The optimal temperature for calves is 60 F in still air. This temperature promotes maximum
performance and provides the least stress. A reasonable comfort range is 50 to 85 F.

When air temperature falls below 50 F, the calf uses food energy to keep warm. This takes energy away from production or growth. Ultimately this leads to reduced feed efficiency. Cold stress also increases the time it takes newborn calves to absorb colostrum.

Temperatures over 85 F will increase breath rate, cause sweating and raise body temperature. Thus calves will eat less to lower heat produced from digesting and absorbing nutrients. As a result growth rate declines. Warmer interior air also allows for more moisture to evaporate and increases manure gases produced.

Many factors can affect a calf’s ideal temperature range including:

  • Humidity.

  • Wind-chill factors.

  • Moisture due to rain or mud.

When it’s cold and humid you may need to provide more heat in closed, insulated buildings to reduce changes in temperature.

You can house calves in hutches even during severe cold. But the calf will need a to get enough protein and energy to stay warm.

Provide shade from direct sunlight. Heat-stressed calves will go off feed, may overheat and even die.

When grouping older calves together, make sure there’s enough shade for all calves. Check the shaded area regularly and keep it dry and clean.

Optimal relative humidity for calf housing is around 65 to 75 percent.

Humidity can cause calves to become damp and sick. A drier environment can reduce pathogen growth and risk of illness. This is especially important in winter with low temperatures, and high humidity. Cold air carries and removes less moisture than warm air.

While breathing, a calf can give off almost 2 gallons of water daily as water vapor.

If this vapor collects in the air around the calf, water will gather on the walls, bedding and the calf’s hair coat. The hair coat loses its ability to hold heat when it gets damp. As a result it’s harder for the calf to keep warm. Calves can die from being chilled even at temperatures above freezing.

Jim Salfer, Extension educator, and Neil Broadwater