Back to basics calf care: Best practices for introducing new calves to your herd

Each time new animals come onto the farm, there’s a risk to the health of the existing herd. The transition from one farm to another is also stressful for the animals themselves.

Dairy calves in particular can face unique challenges as they move through different stages of their early lives. Whether males going to a veal farm or females to a heifer grower or new dairy farm, the calves are exposed to co-mingling, transport, and new congregate settings that can have a negative impact on their health and welfare.

A detailed set of protocols or standard operating procedures can help ease that transition both on the new arrivals and on the farm that is receiving the animals.

Before arrival

Try to buy calves from as few sources as possible to limit the level of co-mingling for the animals and reduce the number of pathogens they could be exposed to. Know the disease status and biosecurity practices of the farms you’re buying from and keep a record of incoming calves. This includes their health status, their farm of origin and if you’re not buying directly from another farm, where you’ve purchased them from. You can find more information on what to look for when buying calves here.

During transport

Clean and disinfect transport trucks and trailers between loads or make sure your transporter has proper protocols in place. Avoid co-mingling calves during transport if possible, and do not transport animals that are too young, show signs of disease or have unhealed navels, or are otherwise unfit.

At the new location

On arrival:

  • Sort incoming calves according to size and weight to minimize their stress and make it easier for them to adjust to their new environment.
  • Keep all new calves in a location away from your existing herd when they first arrive and treat and vaccinate any calves with unknown health status.
  • Make sure they are in a dry, comfortable, and clean environment to prevent them from developing scours and observe them closely for any signs of sickness or other welfare problems while they acclimatize to their new surroundings.

In case of disease:

  • Isolate sick animals, treat them, and make sure they do not have any direct contact with the rest of the herd. As well, prevent them from eating or drinking from the same sources as healthy animals.
  • Strengthen your biosecurity between sick pens and/or quarantine areas and the rest of your barn. That includes properly sanitizing any pails, syringes, drenching tubes or other equipment after using them on sick calves.
  • Before moving calves through alleyways or other common areas in the barn, think about potential contamination risks. If possible, move healthy animals first to minimize the possibility of disease transmission. 

Why protocols are important

If you establish and follow a good standard operating procedure for introducing calves to your herd, you ensure each group of animals is treated the same. It reduces their risk of disease or other problems that negatively impact their health as well as making the farm’s workflow more efficient.

This project was funded by the Canadian Agricultural Partnership, a five-year federal-provincial-territorial initiative.