A deep dive into calf health: Challenges and solutions in record-keeping

By Dr. Kristen Edwards, veterinarian and PhD student, University of Guelph

Calf health is not just a matter of animal welfare – it’s intrinsically linked to the future productivity and profitability of both dairy and veal farms. Early life health can influence its future growth rates, age at first calving or marketing, and even its milk yield. With the rising public concern over antimicrobial use in livestock, it becomes even more crucial to have complete calf health records. But how accurate are these records currently? A recent study from the University of Guelph investigated this question, revealing some interesting insights and solutions.

A snapshot of the current scenario 

Surveying 88 dairy producers in Ontario, Canada, researchers found that less than 25 per cent of farmers consistently recorded all calf illnesses. Even more concerning, less than half documented all administered antimicrobial treatments. This lack of comprehensive recording presents a challenge, especially in an era where understanding and reducing antimicrobial use is of utmost importance.

Key findings of the study

  • The majority of farmers had incomplete calf health records.
  • Recording using paper-based methods resulted in poorer records compared to using computer software systems.
  • One of the key motivators for farmers to record calf health data was the feedback derived from the analysis of their calf health data.
  • Farmers that kept calf health records in close proximity to their calves were more complete in their recording.

Understanding the barriers

Several challenges stand in the way of complete and accurate calf health records. Among these, time constraints were identified as a significant barrier. This was especially the case when calf health records were not kept in or near the calf barn, leading to delays and sometimes omissions in recording. Additionally, records kept in paper booklets, as opposed to digital formats, were also associated with poorer recording practices and were less likely to be consistently updated and analyzed.

Another critical insight was that when calf health records weren’t analyzed and feedback wasn’t provided, farmers were less motivated to maintain records. Feedback based on records analysis fosters interest and accountability, and without it, producers were less willing to spend their limited time recording calf health data.

Opportunities for improvement

So, how can calf health records be improved? The study provides some clear directions:

1. Digital solutions: An overwhelming number of respondents indicated that a mobile app would make recording more efficient. Such an app, if designed to be user-friendly and equipped with data analytics capabilities, could offer timely feedback. This would not only streamline the recording process but could also provide actionable insights.

2. Location of records: Keeping calf health records in the calf barn (or at least near the calves) significantly improved record completeness, likely by allowing data entry to occur soon after an illness was identified, or a treatment was administered. Point-of-care data capture, which is where data is recorded close to the time and place of its generation, is known to improve the completeness of human health care records by minimizing the time required to record data, as well as the opportunity for forgetfulness.

3. Analysis and feedback: One of the most important motivators for recording calf health data was feedback from the analysis of that data. When farmers saw the value derived from their calf health records in the form of actionable insights, they were more likely to be diligent in maintaining their records. By regularly setting time aside to review calf health data with key employees and the veterinarian, it brings greater meaning to the data collection process and unlocks business insights.


The importance of complete and accurate calf health records cannot be overstated. Not only do these records offer insights into the well-being of the calves, but they also play a pivotal role in understanding and managing antimicrobial use and driving management changes on-farm. However, the current gaps in recording calf health data are a concern. Fortunately, with the right tools and strategies, these gaps can be bridged. By leveraging technology, prioritizing point-of-care data capture, and working with industry advisors to ensure continuous data analysis and feedback, calf raisers can ensure a healthier future for their calves and, by extension, for their farms.