Back to basics calf care: Four easy ways to improve calf health

By Lilian Schaer, Agricultural Writer

There are many factors that can affect calf health, from genetics and environment to nutrition and handling. Some are more difficult or expensive to implement than others – and some, like genetics, take careful, long-term planning.

There are some simple solutions, though, that can have a significant and rapid positive impact on the health of your calves. Here are four easy ways you can improve calf health:


Colostrum is a calf’s main source of immunity, energy, and nutrients in early life. In fact, the single most important feed a newborn calf can receive is colostrum right after birth. It transfers antibodies to the calf from its mother and helps kickstart the development of its own immune system.

Pay close attention to the quantity, quality, and cleanliness of colostrum, as well as how quickly it is fed after birth to maximize its benefit for the calf. The first feeding should be as soon as possible, with the calf ideally receiving four litres of colostrum within six hours of birth. Delayed colostrum feeding leaves the calf’s gut exposed to microorganisms like bacteria and viruses that may have a lifelong impact on its performance.

Navel health

Before a newborn calf’s navel is healed and dry, it offers a direct route into the young body for bacteria. That is also why it is critical that calves not be transported unless their navels are healed and dry – and why navel infections should be treated quickly.

Help calves stay healthy by having a clean maternity area, removing the calf from the maternity pen relatively soon after birth and housing it on clean and dry bedding, and quickly administering good quality colostrum.


Deep straw bedding is a simple and cost-effective way to minimize three of the leading calf health problems: respiratory disease, scours, and reduced growth. Calves that experience cold temperatures can become stressed, making them more susceptible to disease and lower growth rates.

Straw is very absorbent and insulating, making it the best bedding choice. Make sure it is at least eight centimetres (about three inches) deep and that it is clean and dry. Check for wetness regularly by kneeling in the straw for 20 seconds and if your knees become wet, add more straw or change the bedding entirely. Add smaller amounts frequently instead of putting all the straw out at once to keep straw dry and loose.  

How much straw is needed depends on the time of year and whether or not the animals are wearing calf coats. Watch for the new Veal Farmers of Ontario nesting score resource coming later this year to decide how much straw is required.

Vaccination protocols

Respiratory diseases are a leading health challenge for calves, and many can be prevented through early and proper vaccination. These include Infectious Bovine Rhinotracheitis, Bovine Respiratory Syncytial Virus, Parainfluenza 3, Bovine Viral Diarrhea Type I and II, and Mannheimia haemolytica and Pasteurella multocida.

A good vaccination protocol spells out which vaccines are given to which calves at what age and helps keep track of what has been administered so proper withdrawal periods can be observed. It also ensures healthier calves and a lower cost of production because each group of calves receives the same vaccination, and doses are not missed or administered late.

Back to basics

When it comes to healthy calf rearing, don’t underestimate the value of going back to the basics. There’s not always medication to fix a problem – and ultimately, prevention is easier than treatment.

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