5 tips for maintaining healthy calves in spring and early summer

Calf_WEBBy Emily Krekelberg
University of Minnesota Extension

Well, spring has finally sprung, although winter did put up a pretty good fight this year. The snow is finally gone, the temperatures are slowly warming up and it’s time for dairy farmers to transition their management from cold and snowy to warm and wet.

Spring is a busy time for farmers and there are so many things to stay on top of, but don’t forget about your calves. Here are five tips to keep your calves healthy this spring, and as we transition into summer.

The past few weeks have been very wet, and we all know that moisture can bring all sorts of problems with it. While we can’t stop the rain, we should be doing what we can to stop its adverse effects on dairy calves.

If your calves are housed outside in hutches, or something similar, make sure you are keeping bedding dry and clean. Pay special attention if your hutches are on dirt, as extra bedding and more frequent changing of it may be necessary. Moist, dirty conditions are ideal for many bacteria, so keeping things clean and dry can help prevent disease.

Likewise, if your calves are housed indoors, check for any leaks in the building as wet spots can also create a mess and increase risk of bacterial growth around your calves.

Besides keeping calves’ bedding clean and dry, it’s important to think about keeping the equipment you use to feed them clean as well. It can be easy to think, “I’ll just skip cleaning that today.”

If you do it once, it becomes easier to do it again.

Cutting corners on keeping things clean can endanger your calves, and make things a lot more difficult down the road. Pay close attention to thoroughly cleaning feeding equipment, such as bottles, buckets, nipples, and feeding tubes. If they are not cleaned, or not cleaned well, biofilm can form on them. Biofilms are home to bacteria, and once formed, they are harder to clean off, and more likely to gather additional protein onto them.

You should make sure your colostrum management is in tip-top shape as the temperatures rise. Because it’s warmer, colostrum needs to be cooled faster. We can no longer depend on snow banks or just-above-freezing milk rooms to cool colostrum.

The goal is to chill the colostrum to at least 60 degrees within 30 minutes of collection from the cow. Putting buckets or bottles of warm colostrum in the refrigerator or freezer will not cool them fast enough, and could cause bacteria growth. Either an ice bath or ice containers in the colostrum will work.

Pre-chilling like this and then refrigerating or freezing does slow down the multiplication rate for bacteria. Remember, the goal is to feed clean colostrum, and warmer temps and slow cooling will hinder those efforts.

My fourth tip for keeping calves healthy in spring is also about feeding. Sometimes we don’t realize it, but we are not feeding our calves enough.

As the snow melts and things start to turn green again, it’s easy to switch back to warm weather feeding, but keeping up with winter methods might be a good idea. When temperatures are below 60 degrees, calves still require a higher amount of energy to maintain a body temperature of 102 degrees.

In winter, we use the general rule of increasing feed 1 percent for each degree below 60. It’s not winter anymore, but it’s still below 60 degrees. So if it’s 50 degrees, you should be feeding 10 percent more milk or milk replacer than you do in the summer. Calves still need that extra nutritional push to get them fully out of winter and colder temperatures and into summer.

My fifth and final tip is making sure you’re feeding enough coccidiostat. Spring weather can be extremely stressful on animals, as it usually brings many severe weather and temperature changes.

Think of those days where we experience a 20-30 degree difference in temperature in a 24-hour period. This weather stress can cause immunosuppression, meaning a bug that calves would normally have no trouble combating can become difficult for the immune system to fight off.

Spring weather changes can often lead to an outbreak of coccidiosis. The coccidiostat level that is usually fed would normally control coccidia growth, but when calves are under extra stress, the coccidia can quickly grow and overwhelm the medication. If a coccidiostat isn’t already being fed with milk, consider adding it during the spring, or increasing the amount of it in spring if you already use it.

Spring, like each season, brings its own challenges when it comes to dairy farming. Make sure you are doing the best things for your calves, and follow my five tips to keep your calves healthy in spring.

Remember, they are: keeping bedding clean and dry; keeping up with cleaning feeding equipment; ensuring colostrum is cooled quickly; feeding 1 percent more feed for every degree below 60; and using or increasing use of a coccidiostat.

If you have any other questions about raising dairy calves, call Emily at the University of Minnesota, Stearns County Extension Office at 320-255-6169.