PRIOR LAKE, Minn. – Maternity and neonatal calf management are critical aspects of any dairy farm. While the work is time intensive, it can also make a difference in the trajectory of an animal’s health.
“You have to find what works for you,” said Ann Hoskins, a calf and heifer specialist from Vita Plus. “Take the time to learn how your own maternity area works.”
Hoskins, along with Jennifer Birchen of Birchen Farms, presented on maternity cow and neonatal calf management Nov. 1-3 at the Dairy Girl Network national conference in Prior Lake.
They discussed the importance of designing the maternity area, the time of calving, navel dipping, moving the calf, warming the calf and colostrum.
The presentation contained information that dove deeper into how to effectively manage maternity pens and newborn calf facilities that can be often overlooked as a driver of future performance.
“It’s a high-impact area that really affects the cow and her future lactation,” Hoskins said. “It drives the future success of that calf.”
And while Hoskins stressed that farms should be putting the time and effort into maternity areas, she said it can be labor intensive.
Hoskins said success begins with how the calving area is designed. Hoskins said farmers should ensure there is enough space. Animal flow and sanitation also need to be considered as does the ease of cleaning the maternity area.
There are different types of calving systems, and pen design can be driven by which system a farmer prefers.
At the time of calving, procedures may be disregarded because it can be hectic, Hoskins said, but corners cannot all be cut as it is a critical time for the calf.
Hoskins recommends dipping the navel in 7% iodine and saturating it for 10 seconds all the way to the belly wall right after birth. This step is crucial in preventing umbilical infections, Hoskins said, which can increase the risk for respiratory disease, cause decreased growth rate and increase the mortality rate. Hoskins also recommends using disposable cups to keep the equipment sanitary.
Hoskins said thermoregulation of the calf is also essential to the calf’s well-being. It is important to get the calf dry as quickly as possible so the calf does not lose extra energy on simply staying warm. The goal is to get the calf dry within 24 hours. Hoskins said there are many ways to ensure this happens, such as a heater, heat lamps, covering the calf in clean and fresh bedding, or drying the calf with a towel. Some farms have even adapted and dry the calf with a large blow dryer.
While Hoskins said farmers may recognize the importance of keeping maternity pens and calf pens clean, it is just as important to clean anything used during the transfer method including tools, boots, bibs and gloves.
Hoskins said colostrum is key, and farmers have about 24 hours to set the stage for a newborn calf and give it what it needs to survive. Colostrum has the largest influence on calf health and survival preweaning, Hoskins said. It also is important in the prevention of diarrhea and pneumonia. It is estimated that approximately 34% of calves experience some sort of health disorder preweaning, Hoskins said. Quality colostrum measuring 22-24 on a Brix test should be fed to the calf as soon as possible to help minimize the potential for future health issues.
Hoskins recommends once the colostrum is collected, it should be cooled immediately. If colostrum is left out, it can enhance bacteria growth. If a farmer chooses to heat treat their colostrum, it should be done at 140 degrees for 60 minutes.  
Hoskins also discussed the importance of cleaning and sanitation.
It is recommended all supplies and utensils are rinsed first, washed with hot soapy water, post-rinsed with acid, air dried and finally sanitized.
Sanitation is important in all aspects of dairy but is critical in maternity and neonatal calf management, Hoskins said. She recommends having sanitation protocols in place on farms to ensure the future health of the herd.
Birchen said she practices just-in-time calving and has someone walk the pre-fresh pen every 20 minutes. She also stressed the importance of having all protocols printed out for the employees to reference.
The protocols and procedures discussed during the presentation add up to real dollars and consequences on the farm.
Hoskins said 10 years ago, 12% of all U.S. calves died pre-weaning. That number has significantly dropped to 5%, and farmers can decrease that number farther, the presenters said, by having set protocols in maternity and calf areas.
If farmers continue to decrease the calf mortality rate, then they decide which calves to keep and which to cull.
“We no longer leave it up to the calves,” Hoskins said. “It’s important for farmers to have the ability to decide who to cull out of our herd and who to keep because we spend a lot of money on genetics. We spend a lot of money to get that calf on the ground. So, let’s make sure we have the ability to keep the calves we want.”