Raising Purchased Baby Dairy Calves: Getting off to a Good Start, By Russ Daly from South Dakota State University


Days-old dairy breed calves are interesting animals. On one hand, these calves exhibit a great deal of toughness, surviving the ordeals of being born, fed colostrum, moved from the maternity pen, moved onto a vehicle, transported, then moved again to their destination pen or hutch. On the other hand, experienced calf-raisers know how fragile they can be when things start to go wrong. How young calves are handled in the transition to their new home sets the stage for determining whether the calf’s toughness or his fragility will rise to the surface in those critical early days.

A successful transition to a calf’s new home starts with an understanding of the calf’s management up to that point. The importance of the information flow and communication between the source dairy and the calf raiser (and often an intermediary, such as a dealer) cannot be overstated. The timing and amount of colostrum received by the calf, subsequent feedings, medications, potential health problems and other procedures are important to understand.

The health of young dairy calves can depend greatly upon the level at which they’re exposed to scours-causing germs during their first hours of life. These germs are very hardy in contaminated environments, so holding areas and trailers can be sources of significant numbers of these pathogens. If calf raisers pick up calves at their source, they can observe holding areas themselves; they should be clean, well-bedded and appropriately managed for temperature and ventilation. Trailers transporting the calves should be clean and disinfected, whether the calf raiser uses their own, or gets the calves delivered.

At the destination, the calf should be placed in a hutch or pen that has been thoroughly cleaned, disinfected and (for hutches) moved to an area where previous calve were not raised. Hutches should be bedded deep with fresh straw, preferably on top of a surface with good drainage. In cold conditions, deep straw bedding that enables a calf to burrow into it will help preserve precious body heat. Handle calves calmly and with care when moving them.

Depending on outside temperature and the distance traveled by the calves, providing the calves a feeding of electrolytes on arrival may be advisable. Preferably, calves should get their first milk feeding about the time they would normally get fed in the days to come. A regular feeding schedule will greatly decrease the incidence of intestinal problems, such as those due to Clostridium perfringens. Free-choice water and starter feed should be provided after a few days.

Milk replacer feedings and electrolyte treatments are just a couple subjects that should be discussed ahead of time with your veterinarian. Experienced calf-raisers can also be sources of good information. Knowing when a calf needs treatment – and what to use – is important to understand even before calves arrive. Generally, any calf with loose stools will benefit from supplemental electrolytes between milk feedings in order to stave off dehydration. When calves become visibly dehydrated, weak or unable to rise, more-extensive treatments, such as intravenous fluids are necessary.

Other procedures or treatments are best discussed with a veterinarian as well. Bull calves are best knife-or-band castrated prior to a month of age. Very young calves (< two days of age) could be paste dehorned. Antibiotic and vitamin injections are normally not necessary in well-managed groups of calves that have received proper colostrum and other nutrition. Vaccinations often are not effective in very young calves. Intranasal respiratory vaccines are considered safe and effective for young calves; however, if respiratory issues are present in young calves, factors such as inadequate colostrum consumption and poor ventilation should be examined.

People raising young calves should be aware of their own health risks – and those of their family members – that can result from directly working with calves. Regardless of their health status, calves less than a month of age can be sources of Cryptosporidia and other germs that can make people sick. Handwashing and changing boots and coveralls after working with calves will help diminish this risk.

Making sure calves get off to a good start often comes down to paying close attention to the right details. A good relationship with the source of the calves and veterinarians will help ensure those details are optimally managed.