September 5, 2017 at 3:32 p.m.

Strong start vital when raising calves organically

By By Ron Johnson- | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

VIROQUA, Wis. – Raising healthy dairy calves using organic methods is all about getting them off to a strong start. Guy Jodarski, staff veterinarian for Cooperative Regions of Organic Production Pools (CROPP), talked about calf raising during a recent workshop in Viroqua.

Just as with calves raised conventionally, dry cow nutrition is important, Jodarski said. One ingredient he thinks should be included in rations is kelp, commonly known as “seaweed.”

“I really believe in kelp for dairy cows and calves. If you can’t afford it for your cows, buy it for your calves,” he suggested.

Kelp meal, according to one supplier, is made from the sea plant Ascophyllum nodosom. It reportedly contains more than 100 micronutrients and 12 vitamins.

Kelp is used to enhance cattle’s immune systems, boost feed efficiency, and decrease the number of birth-related complications. It’s also said to lower the incidence of mastitis, milk fever, retained placentas, abortions and infertility.


Maternity pens

Maternity pen management is an important consideration, Jodarski said. Such a pen should be “dry, well bedded and not overcrowded,” he described.

The vet advocated cleaning maternity pens regularly to keep pathogen levels down. Don’t make the mistake of using the maternity pen as a pen for sick cows, Jodarski cautioned.

Assist with calving if you need to, remembering to dip the calf’s navel with iodine right after birth. Jodarski further noted the importance of feeding colostrum as soon as the calf is ready to drink it.


Feed whole milk

Jodarski also advocated feeding calves whole cow’s milk. Holstein calves should get four quarts twice a day, while Jerseys should receive three quarts twice a day, Jodarski said. 

Boost that to three feedings a day when temperatures dip below zero. Besides providing the right blend of energy and nutrients, whole milk will prevent “a lot of scour problems,” he assured.

Calves milk should be the correct temperature, to encourage them to drink. The vet recommended serving their milk at 101 degrees Fahrenheit.

While it’s all right to introduce young calves to hay and pasture, the veterinarian said to avoid trying to get them to eat grain until after they are four to six weeks old. “It’s not digestible” to them until their rumens have developed, he reminded. And, calves don’t need to eat grain to get their rumens going, Jodarski added.

Fresh water should be available all the time, and let calves drink as much as they want, said the veterinarian. He also recommended feeding calves kelp and humates, also known as salts of humic acids.

Calves can be fed whole milk quite a while. Jodarksi mentioned a California dairy farm that feeds whole milk 100 days or longer.

He acknowledged that organic producers might be tempted to sell that milk instead of feeding it to their calves. Feeding it for 100 days might cost several hundred dollars, he estimated.

Feeding calves milk for two to three months can require a lot of labor. One labor-efficient way to feed milk to calves is by using a “mob” feeder. It’s a plastic barrel with nipples on the outside. The nipples are connected to hoses that go down into milk in the barrel. 

If more than just a few calves are to be fed this way, make sure there are a couple of extra nipples, he said. Try to make sure each calf gets a gallon of milk morning and evening.

If they’re going to feed whole milk to calves, producers should have their herds tested for Johne’s disease and only feed milk from Johne’s-free cows, Jodarski advised. Otherwise, “Pasteurization does help. It doesn’t kill all the pathogens,” he said.

Another way to feed milk to calves is by hanging a “milk bar” on a fence. This plastic container has nipples and functions much the same as a mob feeder.

But don’t just turn calves into a pen, fill the milk bar or milk barrel and forget about them, Jodarski advised. Instead, he said, “Watch the group. Some calves are not as competitive.”

Calves that scour can be fed yogurt as a probiotic. The bacteria in the yogurt will help the calves’ digestive systems. A tincture of garlic can help if a calf has a severe fever, Jodarski added.

He offered this short bit of advice for starting calves that are born when pastures are green and growing: “If it’s summertime, get them on grass.” Calves will learn how to graze from watching their mothers, he assured. That should take just one or two days.



One of the most stressful times for calves is weaning. It’s a “stumbling block” on many farms, Jodarski commented.

A sign that weaned calves are not doing well is dirt and roughness around their tail areas. “Look at the tail,” the veterinarian urged. “The tail should be clean at weaning.”

The stresses of weaning can come in several forms. One is a change in diet. At weaning, calves go from a highly digestible diet to one that is less so.

Another stressor is being moved from individual pens to group pens or lots. Being put in with other calves means a change in social standing, and that often entails being pushed around by other calves, the veterinarian explained.

A move to a different type of housing can also be stressful. This stress comes from temperature and ventilation changes.



Parasites can pose problems at weaning and other times, too. Jodarski said one of the most important parasites of calves is coccidia, the cause of coccidiosis.

These one-celled parasites are transmitted by cattle eating feed or grass that’s been contaminated with manure. Feeding hay on the ground and using dirty waterers are two common ways coccidia spread. The condition, Jodarski said, is usually worse in young stock that are confined.

Since organic dairy farmers aren’t allowed to feed a coccidiostat, they must deal with this parasite in other ways. Feeding whole milk to young calves is a good start, said the veterinarian, because it helps boost the immune system.

He also recommended a “strategic application” of herbal preparations to reduce the parasite load and pasture contamination. It also helps to maintain a diverse blend of pasture plants, since some, such as chicory, contain tannins that naturally help control parasites.

A good way to prevent coccidiosis, said Jodarski, is simply to rotate pastures and dry lots regularly.

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