Every year at this time, we look back at the previous year and determine what went well and what didn't go well. We look at financial performance, production, herd health, reproduction, crop yields, and more. Then we set goals for the coming year.
Several years ago, I set a goal of zero deaths in our baby calves. The goal felt unrealistic, but I still thought it was a worthy goal. Almost all baby calf deaths can be classified as preventable. If that's true, then zero death loss in calves should be attainable. We've all heard that if you shoot for the moon, you'll at least land in the stars. By making zero deaths a goal and writing it down, we had a constant reminder that animal health is important to us and it kept us asking the question, "What can we do better?"
When I looked back at last year's records, I confirmed what I had started to suspect: In 2015, we had zero deaths in calves from birth to weaning - both heifer calves and bull calves. After years of coming close, we had finally met our goal.
Now, part of that achievement was due to just plain luck, but a lot of it is what we've learned about caring for baby calves. And most of it comes down to basic calf care, done consistently.
Colostrum, colostrum, colostrum. Every calf is fed a gallon of colostrum as soon as possible after birth with an esophagus feeder. We feed real colostrum (not replacer) if at all possible - from the calf's mother or another cow, if available. We also save all first milking, second milking, and sometimes third milking colostrum so that each calf can be fed colostrum or transition milk for the first three to four days. We've tried lots of different products that are supposed to increase newborn calf immunity, but nothing replaces four quarts of high-quality colostrum.
Fluids, fluids, fluids. Our calves get sick. Almost every calf will have an episode of digestive illness (mostly due to rotavirus) between seven to 10 days old. In a perfect world, we would find a way to prevent this, but I suspect that would require different calf housing. Our baby calves our housed in small group pens (and sometimes hutches) for two weeks before we put them in the large group pen with the automatic calf feeder.
The key to getting calves through these digestive illnesses is preventing and treating dehydration. If one calf in the pen gets sick, at the very first sign of illness (before she looks dehydrated), we put a pail of electrolytes in the pen so that all calves have free choice access. This has made a huge difference for us. By day seven, our calves are usually drinking water from a pail; if they're ill, they'll find the electrolytes. For free choice electrolytes, we use BlueLite C (or another formulation that's compatible with milk - i.e. no sodium bicarbonate) that comes in a pail. It's more affordable, it's easier to mix up three quarts of solution at a time, and it smells good; which, I think, encourages the calves to drink it.
If a calf doesn't finish her bottle of milk, she'll get a bottle of electrolytes between feedings. We don't ever take calves off of milk because the goal of treating sick calves isn't to stop the diarrhea, but to keep calves nourished, keep them hydrated, and help their bodies overcome the illness. Electrolytes alone do not provide enough calories. For bottle feeding electrolytes, we use Hydralyte (which comes in individual packets) because that formulation has the most effective buffer (sodium acetate). Calves with poor appetites are also checked for fevers and given an analgesic if their temperature is above normal. Dehydration, acidosis, and fever can all contribute to poor appetite. The sooner a calf's acid-base balance, hydration level, and temperature return to normal, the sooner her appetite will return.
Also, even though both of the electrolytes we use include instructions for mixing with milk or water, we never mix electrolytes with milk. It changes the osmolarity of the milk, which slows digestion and creates a perfect environment for clostridia.
Skip the esophagus feeder. If a calf has no appetite and no suckle reflex or if she can't sit up, we switch to IV fluids. After the first feeding of colostrum, we rarely use the esophagus feeder to feed a calf. We never feed milk via esophagus feeder after the first feeding. If a calf has no suckle reflex, it can be because her gut motility is poor; giving her electrolytes orally will not improve her hydration level because she won't absorb the fluid and, conversely, may worsen her situation because the fluid just pools in her rumen, leading to rumen acidosis and bloat.
Whole milk for two weeks. We used to switch calves to milk replacer as soon as their colostrum was gone; however, now we feed clean, unpasteurized whole milk until they go to the calf feeder pen. We see calves recover faster from rotavirus and other digestive illnesses when they're fed whole milk. I'm guessing it's from the combination of better digestibility, more fat for energy, enzymes, and beneficial bacteria in unpasteurized milk.
Newborn calf health starts with dry cows. Every cow and heifer is vaccinated with a scours vaccine twice during pregnancy - at dry off and again two to three weeks before calving. We haven't had a calf infected with E. coli since we started vaccinating dry cows.
Additionally, we've found that calves born to cows who are slow to start eating after calving tend to be slow to take off, too. So we pay a lot of attention to balancing our dry cow diet for enough energy to keep them in good condition but low enough to keep them eating. Adequate vitamin E level in the dry cows ration is important, too.
We also saw an improvement in the winter when we expanded our dry cow housing to give them more room. In the summer, our dry cows live and calve on pasture.
More room, controlled environment, consistent care. At least part of reaching our goal is due to the changes we've made in baby calf housing over the years. Calves housed indoors in a controlled environment aren't stressed by heat in the summer or cold in the winter. Our small group and large group pens aren't as large as I'd like them to be when our calf numbers are at their highest, but on average the calves have more room than they did in the hutches. Caring for calves in group pens - everything from observing to bedding to offering electrolytes - is easier for us. Ultimately, the easier a job is, the more likely it is to be done consistently and on time.
These are the components of a calf care program that works for us. Every farm is unique and needs to find a system that works for it's people, animals, and facilities.
I now firmly believe that zero death loss in baby calves in not an unrealistic goal.