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Zero-zero calf care: A team event

Jodi Wallace for Progressive Dairyman Published on 11 February 2019
Chloe helps with the calves

Zero treatments and zero mortality. I would have never believed it was achievable, but “zero-zero” calf care is. But you don’t get there overnight.

It takes a team of dedicated caregivers and professionals who care and consistently do the basics right. Understanding the “why” of each of the daily calf tasks will help to get closer to zero-zero calf care.



Calf treatment and mortality is not normal on-farm. It’s only “normal” because it was what we were used to seeing. When abnormal becomes normal, that’s a problem. The industry standard is to have less than 5 percent mortality and 15 percent treatment rates in pre-weaned calves. This is abnormal. Strive to be better – better than the set standards.

When treatment and, consequently, mortality rates climb, it should raise a flag. Are we covering up the real source of the problem?

Diarrhea and pneumonia are the main causes of sickness in calves. These are preventable diseases. When the newborn calf arrives alive, it should stay alive. The calf arrives in pristine health. It is up to us to maintain that health status. Chances are, diarrhea and pneumonia are not the calf’s fault. There may have been a failure on our side.

Open your eyes and minds to improvements. Medication helps treat disease, not blindness. Ask for outside help. The objective professional, such as your veterinarian, is trained to help you find areas where there is the greatest opportunity for improvement. Once the bottleneck is found, commit to a new “action” to have the greatest positive impact on calf health. Veterinarians are trained health care professionals. Not only can we treat disease, we know the etiology of disease and how to prevent it. Return to the root of the problem.

Listen and work as a team. Remember, no one likes to hear what they are doing wrong. Instead, view it as “opportunity for improvement.” Nutritionists and other specialized dairy advisers can also offer guidance to optimize your calf-raising program. As a team, you can inspire and motivate each other.


Why do you do what you do? Why do we make recommendations? I challenge you, the calf caregiver, to understand the “why” in your daily tasks. This will help identify the essential and non-essential tasks.

Why is colostrum so important? Calves are born without a functioning immune system. Feeding colostrum allows antibodies to be transferred into their blood system. These antibodies serve to defend against disease until the calf’s own immune system develops. Therefore, the greatest opportunity of improvement and moving towards zero-zero is achieving passive transfer (PT). How do we do this? As soon as possible after birth, the calf needs 3 to 4 litres of clean, high-quality colostrum. Research has shown calves who receive adequate colostrum (have PT of antibodies) have higher average daily gains (ADG), improved health pre- and post-weaning, as well as higher milk production in their first lactation than calves that did not receive enough colostrum.

Are you achieving PT? The first step to troubleshooting calfhood illness is to determine if colostrum management is adequate. Measuring blood serum total proteins from calves 1 to 7 days old can indicate if enough colostral antibodies were absorbed. More than 85 percent of calves should have successful PT. Calves that have failure of PT can be flagged as high-risk calves. If more than 15 percent have failure of PT, find out why. Take action and make the corrective changes.

If you succeed with PT, but your calves still have diarrhea and pneumonia, ask yourself and your team some simple but important questions?

  • Are calves getting enough clean milk to drink? Calves should double their birthweight by 60 days. They should be fed 20 percent of their bodyweight in milk. Consider feeding 3X or offering free-choice milk. The cleanliness of feeding utensils (pails, bottles, nipples) is also key for healthy calves.

    It is essential to correctly clean calf feeding equipment.When feeding equipment is not properly cleaned, there is more opportunity for disease-causing bacteria and pathogens to grow. By feeding calves with “dirty” equipment, we are inadvertently feeding and exposing our calves (and their fragile immune systems) to large amounts of pathogens.

  • Do they have access to free-choice water and starter? Research has shown calves that have free-choice water, versus no water, have a 45 percent increase in starter intake and a 60 percent increase in weight gain in the first four weeks of life. Starter intake is important because it increases rumen development.

  • Is there always fresh, clean, draft-free air for your calves to breathe? Pneumonia has serious economic impacts now and for the future of that calf. It can negatively impact growth, reproductive performance, milk production and longevity.

  • Is there enough bedding? Are calves clean, dry and warm? Newborn calves will spend approximately 80 percent of their time lying down, and 6-week-old calves will spend 75 percent. Ensure calves have enough bedding to keep them warm and dry. Calves lose heat by conduction. That means heat is transferred down through the bedding. Calves should be able to “nest” in the bedding, which helps reduce heat loss. The legs of the calf should be covered by the bedding when lying down (nesting score 3).

  • Are your calves protected against diarrhea and pneumonia with specific vaccination protocols? Vaccines help protect against infection and disease and establish immunity in the young calf.

Be honest. The deadliest statement is “I’ve always done it that way.” You can’t keep doing things the same way, expecting different results. Improvements in these areas will help improve calf health and get you closer to zero-zero.

Raising calves can be the most rewarding and most frustrating aspect on the dairy farm. There is a considerable amount of effort invested in the first day of life and in the next two years to get the calf to the milking string. Nobody likes to have sick calves on the farm. It’s time-consuming, costly, emotionally draining and stressful. The closer we get to zero-zero, the more enjoyable and more profitable calf raising can be.  end mark


PHOTO 1: It is essential to correctly clean calf feeding equipment. Equipment that is “dirty” invites and multiplies bacteria and pathogens responsible for disease. 

PHOTO 2: It is essential to correctly clean calf feeding equipment. Equipment that is “dirty” invites and multiplies bacteria and pathogens responsible for disease. Photos provided by Jodi Wallace.

Jodi Wallace
  • Jodi Wallace

  • Veterinarian
  • Ormstown Veterinary Hospital
  • Email Jodi Wallace