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Pre-weaning calf care has long-term impact on performance

Catharina Berge for Progressive Dairyman Published on 31 March 2016

Raising healthy heifers is a key component of achieving future high productivity and increasing the lifetime performance of the dairy’s cows. Having good dry cow management, feeding high-quality colostrum soon after birth in sufficient quantities and feeding good-quality milk or milk replacer are essential to any successful youngstock program.

The aim of this article is to emphasize the key components of optimal pre-weaned calf management that impacts future cow productivity and longevity.



Studies indicate that 4 to 5 percent of calves are born dead or die within 24 hours of birth, and losses can be significantly higher with poor calving management practices. The calf should land on a deep bed of clean straw that is optimally changed after every calving.

During the winter, the temperature challenges for a calf can involve a temperature drop of 50ºC compared to the womb. To help minimize this temperature challenge, quickly dry the calf and keep it in a warmer environment (infrared lamp, heated room, calf jacket) for at least 24 hours.

Failure of passive transfer of immunity through colostrum is still a common problem. The best way to minimize risk of disease and deaths is to bottle-feed or esophageal tube-feed 3 to 4 litres of colostrum (according to the size of the calf) within the hour of birth. A second feeding of colostrum (2 to 4 litres) six to 12 hours after the first feeding is thereafter recommended.

Controlling colostrum management by measuring serum total proteins in the calves is a good tool to ensure compliance with protocols. Good colostrum administration has been shown to have a long-term positive impact on the animal’s health and productivity, including improved lactational performance and less risk of involuntary culling.

One study, comparing calves fed 4 litres of colostrum to calves fed 2 litres, noted that the 4-litre group produced 550 kilograms more milk in the first lactation and were 16 percent less likely to be culled within the first two lactations.


For herds with disease challenges, such as Johne’s disease, Salmonella Dublin or Staphylococcus aureus mastitis, either pasteurized colostrum or a colostrum replacer are good options.

Pre-weaning feeding practices

Pre-weaning calf nutrition should meet the growing animal’s nutritional needs as well as support the transformation of the pre-ruminant calf into a ruminating high-production dairy cow.

Improved nutritional status, especially in the first three weeks of life, may enable the heifer to reach breeding age sooner, give her an improved ability to withstand infectious challenges and increase her subsequent milk production.

It is absolutely essential to ensure that the milk or milk replacer fed provides sufficient energy for maintenance, growth and immune functions. Most calves under 2 to 3 weeks old are not functional ruminants and will get very little energy from grain. Consequently, they are unable to compensate for any energy deficiencies from the lack of milk by increasing their grain intake.

Calves that are not feeling well usually decrease grain intake prior to decreasing milk intake. Feeding pasteurized waste milk provides high levels of proteins and fats that can promote growth and decrease cryptosporidiosis, but problems can arise if the hygienic quality and management routines are failing.

If choosing a milk replacer, seek out the ones with all-milk-source proteins and carefully calculate the quantities needed for optimal growth.


A good-quality palatable starter grain with a high protein content (greater than 19 percent) is important to stimulate grain intake and is important for rumen development. Do not limit milk in order to encourage grain intake. This leads to limitations in growth and depressed health due to the calf being undernourished.

In general, weaning can start when a calf eats 1 kilogram of grain per day. It is essential that grain intake is monitored individually when early weaning is recommended (less than 10 weeks).

Gradual weaning over a period of 10 days has been recommended, and calves should not be moved or regrouped until at least 10 days after weaning.

Several studies have indicated improvements in subsequent milk production when calves were fed greater amounts of milk and had higher weight gains pre-weaning.

A meta-analysis of studies evaluating the influence of pre-weaning daily gain on future productivity has estimated that an increase in 100 grams per day in daily weight gain can result in 155 kilograms more milk in the first lactation.

These studies indicate it is most likely not cost-effective to try to save money on pre-weaning calf feed because of reduced performance in the future.

Poor health during early life has long-lasting effects on milk production and herd life. Calves characterized as having dullness before 90 days old were more than four times more likely to die thereafter than healthy calves.

Respiratory disease in calves under 3 months old was associated with a 12 percent increase in calving intervals. Even mild diarrheal disease in the first three months of life resulted in 344 kilograms less milk in their first lactation.

The evidence is clear that poor management and health in young calves strongly impacts subsequent milk production. Therefore, a dairy that does not invest in heifers and optimize their health and growth is cheating itself out of future production.  PD

References omitted due to space but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor. 

Catharina Berge
  • Catharina Berge

  • Berge Veterinary Consulting BVBA
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