In mid-April, the Dairy Calf and Heifer Association (DCHA) held its annual meeting and conference in Colorado. I had the opportunity to join other calf raisers, veterinarians, consultants, and nutritionists, all sharing the same goal of improving our calf care to produce better animals. The topics covered were diverse, ranging from transition milk, breeding and genetics, liver abscesses, vaccinations, and more. During one session, a presenter made a striking comment: anything that happens to the calf is not the calf’s fault.

Though this concept may seem obvious at first, I’ve found that many who work with calves or young stock often attribute issues to the calves themselves, labeling them as “bad” calves. While it’s true that there are typical “sale barn” calves that struggle with health and performance from day one, we must remember that their immune systems react to the stressors we subject them to. In our last article, “Understanding your calves’ immune system,” we discussed how the calf’s immune system evolves in the first couple of months of life, highlighting a vulnerable period. Therefore, to reduce the incidence of “bad” calves, we must take preventive measures to mitigate stress during the first few months of life.


Colostrum – Colostrum handling and administration are fundamental for building a successful calf. Calves should receive high-quality colostrum within the first 24 hours of life, ideally within the first 2 hours. Research indicates calves should receive colostrum containing at least 150 IgGs to establish passive immunity transfer. Without colostrum, the calf is left immune deficient and vulnerable to disease.

Vaccination – Vaccinations are an effective way to boost a calf’s immune system. Gestating vaccinated cows have shown to pass antibodies to the calf through their colostrum. After birth, there are numerous effective vaccines available to protect and strengthen calves’ immune systems.

Nutrition – Consistency is key when it comes to calf nutrition. Providing calves with milk replacer at a consistent solids level meeting their nutritional needs significantly improves calf health and performance. While there are various nutrition methods and options for calves, finding a system that suits your operation and calves is crucial.

Environment – Newborn calves, with weak immune systems, are particularly vulnerable to the environment. Keeping calves in a clean environment is essential for allowing them to develop their immune systems and focus their energy on growth. This includes regularly cleaning and disinfecting equipment used for raising them, as well as keeping bedding clean and dry to minimize bacterial levels.


Transportation – Transporting calves, even for short distances, is a stressful event that can weaken intestinal integrity and compromise the immune system. Before transport, ensure calves are well-hydrated and have recently eaten to better handle the stresses involved.

Dehorning – Various methods of dehorning calves exist, each inducing pain, with lingering effects for days. Recent research suggests numbing the area with lidocaine or a similar local anesthetic to reduce pain and immunological responses. Consult with your veterinarian to determine the best dehorning protocol for your calves.

Weaning – Weaning practices vary, but recent research suggests keeping calves on milk longer, allowing their rumen time to develop and encouraging regular consumption of calf starter and dry feed (at least 3 pounds a day), positively impacts calf health and performance. While 56 days is the standard age for weaning, some operations base it on individual calf readiness and operational performance goals.

Environment – Environment is reiterated here because it plays a crucial role in calf health and performance. Clean, sanitized housing and feeding equipment are essential. Weather conditions can also cause stress, particularly heat stress in regions like the southern United States. Many mitigate this by providing electrolytes regularly during summer months to ensure calves stay hydrated.

Raising calves presents numerous challenges, and unfortunately, there is no perfect solution. However, taking preventive measures to ensure calves are healthy and have the necessary resources (nutrition and environment) to cope with stressors is crucial. Work with your Esmilco representative to develop a program that protects your calves and minimizes the risk of encountering a “bad” calf.

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