What does your vet know about raising calves?

A record number of attendees at the 2018 Healthy Calf Conference heard from Dr. Dave Renaud, Assistant Professor at the University of Guelph. He began by polling attendees virtually on what was discussed during their regular dairy herd health visits. Not surprisingly, reproduction was the major focus, taking up over 65% of the visit (figure 1).

What percentage of time does your veterinarian spend on each activity at your regular herd health visit?

Calf health management ranked number two, just above transition cow management. This is somewhat expected, as the respondents took a day out of their schedule to come to a calf focused conference. They are the ones most likely to be talking to their vet about calf health management. 

Renaud explained that herd health is a team approach, and the producer, the veterinarian, nutritionist and all calf staff need to work together. By collecting data, trying new approaches, and evaluating the results, calves can become a part of regular herd health, moving focus from treating calf disease to optimizing calf health and growth, and avoiding disease. Calfhood illness may be common, but it doesn’t have to be inevitable. 

Renaud provided some examples of things he includes in a calf health plan. For colostrum management, he will begin by testing successful passive transfer by collecting blood from 12 calves between one and nine days of age. If more than 30% do not have successful passive transfer (over 5.5 mg/dL), a close examination of colostrum management is needed. 

If many calves have a failure of passive transfer, Renaud then looks at colostrum quality. Colostrum fed to calves should have a reading of 22% or more when read on a refractometer. If more than 10% of colostrum samples are below this level, there is a weak link in the colostrum program. Another potential cause of failure of passive transfer is colostrum cleanliness. Sending colostrum samples to a laboratory to test bacteria levels and using a luminometer to instantly test cleanliness of feeding equipment are two ways Renaud will evaluate the colostrum program.

Renaud also emphasized that you don’t need to wait for your veterinarian to ask you about your calves. Next time the vet is out, ask them how effective your colostrum management is, and investigate this together, starting with serum total protein testing. If total protein levels raise any concerns, then you and your vet can start to investigate further. 

Percentage of veterinarians who collect information on calf health

According to another poll question (figure 2), many vets aren’t collecting information on growth. Renaud suggests targets of 900 g/d after weaning, 60% of mature body weight at breeding, and 85% of mature body weight by calving. Here, Renaud proposes getting your nutritionist involved in the team approach to calf health. Often, they will offer growth monitoring services to their customers. 

 Recording growth rates helps benchmark your farm and determine if things are on track or need a little adjusting. Regularly recording growth rates is also helpful to determine if feed or management changes have improved productivity as well as understand if growth rates slump during stressful times, such as weaning. 

You can only work towards improvement if you know where you start!

He concluded by emphasizing that collecting data is half the battle, but you need to take time to review the data with your herd health team. You, your veterinarian, nutritionist, and all calf staff need to understand whether you are falling short, meeting, or exceeding, targets, and everyone needs to be a part of finding and implementing a solution.