Help clients devise plans for calving surges, including where to house extra calves when they start coming fast.
Help clients devise plans for calving surges, including where to house extra calves when they start coming fast.

A sudden influx of calves on the dairy without the labor or facilities to handle them can lead to calf health problems.

Planning ahead for these times is something the veterinarian can assist his/her client with. Sam Leadley, PhD, Attica Veterinary Associates, P.C., Attica, N.Y., says if a herd has DairyComp 305 the veterinarian can enter ECON on the command line and click on project herd inventory. This gives by month based on confirmed pregnancies the animals due to calve by lactation status (>1,=1), he explains. “Armed with these facts I ask the herdsman/owner how they are going to manage to provide quality care during the peak months.”

“Slack” and “surge” times

The variation Leadley sees on-farm between “slack” times and “surge” times is great. “Calving packs that are fine when calving rates are low turn into swamps loaded with bacteria slop when surges hit. When your knees soak right through to the skin immediately when you kneel in a calving pen or on a pack, you know the calf program is in big trouble.”

Leadley’s personal experience with this situation is during what he calls “the spring-work blues.” “For me about 10 months of the year were low pathogen-exposure times. Calving packs were well bedded and dry. As soon as corn planting and haylage harvest started, the crew that took care of the bedding got pulled off to help outside and the inside crew was overloaded. Calving conditions went to Hell in a handbasket.”

Leadley says calves did not get moved out promptly, colostrum got fed late and his scours treatment rate shot up to close to 100%. “I had blood serum protein values on all the calves. Most of the year, 5.0-5.2 seemed to predict good health pretty well. During the spring-work blues time the threshold seemed creep up to 5.5-5.7.” Much higher pathogen exposure overwhelmed “average” immunity.

Managing calf surgesThe result was scours cases that were more intense and longer in duration. “Of course, at the same time my passive transfer failure rate would go up due to slippage in colostrum management,” Leadley adds. “So I had the double whammy – lower immunity and higher pathogen exposure.” Leadley lost very few calves but spent a lot more time giving medication, feeding electrolytes and even giving subQ and IV fluids. “Then, corn planting and first cutting would get done. Presto, passive transfer failure rate dropped and the frequency of severe scours cases went down as well.”

Calving areas

Even if a dairy is set up with maternity pens, a large amount of calves can overwhelm the typical calving areas. Leadley says in a calving surge producers need to find other place they can calve cows and heifers. “Just get more space,” he says. “Depending on the season and part of the country, fencing in an extra ‘close-up’ paddock and setting up a ‘J-bunk’ for feeding is an option.”

Leadley’s clients will start housing some of their close-up cows on grass paddocks in June to provide cleaner environments for calvings during the July surge. Unfortunately, many dairies are not planned to permit flexibility in the housing of the close up cows and heifers.

Some producers choose to delay moving animals into the prefresh group in order to keep these numbers down. “Where they calve on a bedded pack this does thin things out, but where they feed a different ration to the close up group cutting this time short can have negative consequences,” Leadley says. “Where they keep animals in free stalls and move into calving pens ‘just in time’ this delay strategy works well to keep the free stall overcrowding under control but does not do anything for keeping the calving pens in better shape.”

Colostrum management

There are five “Qs” of colostrum management: quality, quantity, quickly, sQueeky clean, quantify passive transfer. Where do the shortcuts happen that negatively impact calf health when a calf surge occurs? Leadley says at every point. Shortcuts include:
Quality -- Skipping testing with a Colostrometer or refractometer, and just feeding whatever is on hand. You cannot feed enough of low quality (low IgG concentration) colostrum to get 200g of IgG into a calf, Leadley says.

Quantity – Cheating on time to feed calves means that they end up with less than the four quarts we want in the first four hours. Or, they skip the second feeding entirely.
Quickly – Feeding colostrum when they get to it rather than as soon as possible. Dropping back to feeding colostrums to all newborn calves at two times a day.

Squeeky clean – Rinsing equipment rather than washing it. Biofilms build up supporting large bacteria populations on equipment surfaces.

Quantify passive transfer – Not drawing blood – dairies that are too busy to monitor a system that is in a state of chaos.

“Calves suffer again from a double whammy,” Leadley says. “Inadequate immunity and excessive pathogen exposure. Not only do we get high scours treatment rates, but this condition makes it difficult to provide calves enough protein and energy to build up their immune system during the first three or four weeks of life. These situations often result in high pneumonia treatment rates as well.” When not enough time is available to properly collect, handle and store colostrum so that it can be delivered wholesome and clean, Leadley says to consider using colostrum replacer as the first feeding after birth.

Extra calf housing

If current calf housing is overwhelmed  n a calving surge, Leadley says there are other areas of the dairy that can be utilized, but they need to be clean and dry with plenty of fresh air but not in a draft.

“I have seen overflow calves in machine sheds, straw barns and commodity barns,” he says. “Almost any place with a roof if the weather is an issue will work.” In the summer, calves can be tied to any object that they cannot move including trees and wagons. “Four gates set up can make a pen anywhere that is not in the mud.”

However, really awful places are inside a barn with older animals that has poor ventilation, calves tied in front of cows in a tie-stall barn, tied in free-stalls in a free-stall barn occupied by older heifers or cows, or even stuck in the basement of an old bank barn with no ventilation.

Training and SOPs

Leadley believes the herd veterinarian has an important contribution to make in these situations. “They can help set up written protocols for calf care processes including colostrums management. At times other than the surges, they can push for training staff.”

He adds that the most important role for the herd veterinarian is in protocol or SOP development. “Once they are in place, then on-farm employees can pick up the training role. Being a good role model as a trainer is, however, an important contribution of the veterinarian.”

It’s a good idea to cross-train – ahead of time – one or two other dairy employees who are not the typical calf caregivers, to help with calves in the event of a surge. They should be trained to feed colostrum, dip navels and tag newborn calves, or feed milk, water or grain to preweaned calves.

Leadley says it’s also not a bad idea to hire one or more temporary employees to help provide newborn care and to provide timely colostrums feeding.

“They really need to be prepared to do the extra work before the surge happens,” Leadley advises. “When you are up to your chin in alligators is a poor time to debate the value of draining the swamp! When you have come to the end of your rope and had to tie a knot in it to hang on the last thing you need is untrained staff to ‘help’ you.”