Dr. Robert James, professor emeritus, Virginia Tech University, said the primary goal in managing dairy calves is to raise the highest quality heifers to maximize profit when they enter the milking herd.

“Calves are an investment,” said James. “Some of the returns are long-term. It’s important to think about tomorrow.”

In the current economy, the dairy farmer’s goal is to raise the number of heifers required to meet the dairy’s business goal, whether it’s expansion or maintaining herd size.

James emphasized the importance of the public face of dairy farming. “What does the consumer think when they look at our calf programs?” he said. “Unfortunately, the first thing they think is ‘factory farm’ and that’s something to be aware of. Calves are very visible to the consumer – it’s one of the things consumers identify with the dairy industry.”

The social development of calves is important. There are clear benefits to raising calves in pairs or in group housing. Calves learn from each other and start eating starter sooner, and are better prepared to respond to novel situations such as regrouping or feed changes. Such calves are also easier to wean because they are accustomed to living in a group – there’s less post-weaning slump compared to individually-housed calves that are abruptly weaned and placed in groups.

Feeding sufficient milk to all calves should be a priority. “I want to get more milk into the calf earlier in life,” said James. “Feed the animal so she can reach her genetic potential for growth, and I want the benefits of paired or group housing.”

When young calves are limit fed, the youngest calves are at a serious disadvantage. “We know calves don’t eat much starter until about four weeks,” he said. “Their maintenance requirements are higher because they lose body heat more quickly. I want to see calves gaining weight by their second week of life.”

James emphasized that raising calves for this outcome involves good recordkeeping.

“The calf is essentially almost ‘sterile’ at birth,” said James. “It’s rapidly colonized by bacteria from the environment, from the dam (fecal, oral, vaginal), from colostrum and from the hands of the feeder. Our objective is to establish good bacteria and avoid establishing undesirable bacteria. It’s a race between the bacteria in the environment and the initial colostrum and the IgG.” The goal is to promote a desirable biome for calves.

On most farms, there’s an initial first feeding of colostrum, then calves are switched to milk or milk replacer. In a natural setting, the calf has a first feeding then consumes transition milk as the cow produces less colostrum and more milk.

James outlined a research study in which calves were fed colostrum then divided into two groups. One group was switched immediately to milk replacer and the other received transition milk (sourced from second, third and fourth milkings). Calves that received transition milk were healthier, had better intestinal growth, higher average daily gains, improved cough and fecal scores and better overall development.

Calves fed fresh colostrum from their own dams have higher IgG levels compared to calves fed flash-frozen colostrum, a process James said kills maternal leucocytes. “Calves that got flash-frozen colostrum had fewer B lymphocytes a month after vaccination,” he said. “They had decreased immune development compared to calves that received fresh colostrum.”

Factors that influence colostrum quality include dry cow nutrition, optimum calving environment, milking the fresh cow as soon as possible after calving and sanitizing milking equipment and storage vessels. Colostrum should be cooled immediately or fed as soon as possible.

“If there’s a risk of infectious disease within the farm, colostrum should be pasteurized,” said James. “If we can feed transition milk to the youngest calves for as long as possible, that’s a potential benefit.” Farms that commit to such measures are rewarded with healthier heifers and adult cows.

Dairies often grapple with feeding milk, which contains more fat and protein, versus milk replacer. “My biggest challenge with milk is how to maintain quality from the teat to the calf’s mouth,” said James. “Milk should be pasteurized, which is another investment in equipment, energy and people.”

He said milk replacer should be good quality – at least 24% protein. “With milk replacer, we start with lower bacteria counts,” he said. “It’s simple and less labor – the tough thing is to write a check.”

Farms that feed milk should charge the calf enterprise what it costs to feed milk because it’s a considerable expense.

It’s easy to overlook the hidden but critical aspects of calf care such as labor availability and costs. “Legislation is looking at overtime and minimum wages, which will have a huge impact on calf programs,” said James. “Calf care tasks include maternity/calving, colostrum harvest and storage, newborn care, vaccinations, colostrum feeding, transportation, milk prep or milk replacer prep, maintaining sanitation with buckets or bottles, feeding calf starter, healthcare and housing (bedding, maintenance and sanitation).” Efficiency is often the foremost concern of workers, but they shouldn’t take shortcuts to finish tasks.

A study in New York, updated in 2019, looked at the cost of raising heifers by stage of growth. Raising a calf from birth to 200 lbs. comprises about 15% of the total cost, and calves are efficient and grow well during this period. The highest cost period is from 200 to 700 lbs., and from 850 lbs. to calving.

“If we want to focus on economy,” said James, “we need to get them bred and into the milking herd.”

He suggested looking at the farm’s cow management protocols and transferring those standards to calf management. “Very few farms weigh calves at birth, weaning and other critical stages,” he said. “With data systems, we can do that efficiently and effectively without writing it down.”

There’s concern that calves fed more milk will not eat calf starter, but James said that shouldn’t be the main concern. “Feed calves better to achieve their potential for growth,” he said. “The calf starter will take care of itself.”

The blueprint for calf management involves a team that includes managers, feeders, veterinarians and industry partners. Everyone should be communicating and working toward the same goals. If the calf feeder notices something about a calf or group of calves, information should be relayed to the manager quickly, with minimal lag time between diagnosing an issue and an appropriate response.

“What does the future hold, and are you ready now?” asked James. “Back up and think about how we feed calves, and are we feeding more milk to young calves early in life so they grow better during this early phase?”

by Sally Colby