Sharpening the pencil in calf raising

While the diary industry is under financial trouble, it's important to analyze aspects of your farm business.

The United States dairy industry is under extreme financial pressure with little relief in sight. During these tough times, producers must analyze every aspect of the farm business. Calves have high labor requirements and feed costs and little short-term income opportunities, so they are no exception.

It is important to remember that today’s heifer calves are the milking cows in two years. It may be easy to think shaving costs in calf raising will have little negative impact long-term. However, if calves are short-changed in areas that will result in increased death loss or illness, reduced farm profitability will extend for much longer.

Start with excellent colostrum management

In evaluating calf raising, first start with the basics that pay big returns. Proper colostrum management is essential to raising healthy calves and will pay the biggest returns. Every calf should be hand fed 10 percent of its body weight (1 gallon for typical Holstein calf) of high quality, clean colostrum as soon as possible after birth. Colostrum delivers antibodies from the cow, therefore calves that receive sufficient antibodies that are absorbed into their bloodstream are said to have “passive (acquired) immunity”. Calves having excellent passive immunity experience decreased sickness, improved gains and minimized death loss. That equates to less labor, feed and drug costs.

Michigan State University Extension recommends a second colostrum feeding within 8-12 hours of the first feeding. The second feeding of colostrum can be of lesser quality, however still free of bacterial contamination. While absorption of antibodies is less likely at the second feeding, there is evidence that a second feeding provides nutrients and non-nutritional factors that provide long-term benefit to the calf.

Milk Feeding

Evaluate your milk-feeding program. If you are on a high milk program, do calves drink all of the milk you offer in the first two weeks? If not, there may be an opportunity to cut back what is offered early in life. While we want to optimize growth and health, we also need realize that calves ramp up milk intake over the first two weeks of life.

Are calves weaned on time? Current recommendations are to begin weaning heifers at 4-6 weeks of age. Heifers can be weaned as soon as they are consuming adequate starter to maintain their growth, typically 2-6 pounds per day (depending on heifer size). On high milk feeding, calves will often not consume much starter until milk is decreased. Michigan State University Extension recommends cutting volume in half at each feeding or removing one feeding of milk to begin the weaning process which will stimulate starter intake. For optimal calf health, weaning should be gradual over 10-14 days.

According to the most recent National Animal Health Monitoring System (USDA, 2014) average age at weaning for heifers was 9 weeks, and 18.9 percent of operations are weaning heifers at 13 or more weeks of age. In many operations, there is likely an opportunity to wean heifers earlier, and thus save costs, without detriment to long-term growth.

Dry Feed

Reducing starter waste can cut calf-raising costs. Calves should be given a small handful of starter to begin with on day 3-5 of life. Too often, calf raisers will fill the bucket up with starter and wait for the calf to finish the entire bucket before offering more. Calf starter gets stale, heats and molds when left out, reducing intake and delaying rumen development. Feeding fresh starter daily, only the amount she will clean up, will promote starter intake, resulting in a calf that is ready to be weaned sooner and is better able to utilize the nutrients you give her. If it fits into your herd health plan, starter refusals can be fed to older heifers to reduce wastage.

Calf Sales

There is an income opportunity from selling calves. Most dairy producers sell bull calves at a very young age. Evaluate the arrangement you have to sell bulls to determine if there are opportunities to receive a premium. For example, if you currently haul calves to a livestock market, can you sell calves to an individual that would pay a premium and pick up calves themselves? Can you get a premium by showing proof to the buyer that bull calves receive adequate colostrum by blood sampling calves for serum IGG or total proteins? If you have available calf housing, labor and excess waste milk, there may be an opportunity to raise some bull calves past weaning to optimize profits.

Conversely, determine the number of heifers you need to raise based on death loss and annual cull rate. This may result in the ability to sell extra heifer calves early to optimize labor, feed costs, and housing. Calculating the number of surplus heifers you have will also give you the ability to explore the option of using beef semen on some cows to capture a premium on those calves.


Now is a good time to discuss your calf and heifer herd health plan with your veterinarian to ensure that all vaccines, treatment protocols and feed additives are up to date. It is important not to cut out items that are beneficial to your herd, but there may be opportunities to remove something that was added in response to a specific problem in the past, or as ‘extra insurance’ when milk price was high.

Average pre-weaned death loss in the US is 7.8 percent according to the National Animal Health Monitoring System (USDA, 2007), while stillbirths (born dead or die in the first 48 hours) are estimated to be about 7-8 percent on most farms. When combined, on an average farm 15 percent of our calves do not make it past weaning, costing the dairy significant amounts of money and lost potential.

Of the 7-8 percent stillbirths, it is estimated that 90 percent are alive at the start of calving and about 20 percent are born alive, meaning improved management can reduce these losses and result in more live calves. The number one cause of pre-weaned heifer deaths is scours (56 percent, NAHMS). Many times, careful attention to scouring calves by providing adequate nutrition and replacing lost fluids with a good electrolyte can save these calves.


Calves are a large expense to the dairy operation and with current milk prices, it is wise to evaluate every aspect of calf raising to ensure costs are under control. Work with your MSU Extension personnel, nutritionists, and veterinarians to fine tune calf raising on your farm.

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