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Good Looking Managers Raise Healthier Calves

Did the title get your attention? That’s what I was hoping it would do. Because first I want to get your attention, and then I want that attention directed to your calves!

The key to raising healthy calves depends on how quickly and effectively you respond to changing clues they’re sending out. This means being observant. You have got to actually get your eyes focused on the calves as a regular part of the daily routine. Walk the line! It never ceases to amaze me when I hear people talking about working with a nutritionist, vet or other consultant who makes recommendations from a phone, computer or their car or truck. Actually looking at the calves is always the best and the ONLY way to raise healthier calves.

Walking the Talk

By the time, today’s managers are receiving printouts on the production of their milking herd, it’s too late to wind back the clock and fix what went wrong when those calves should have been getting a healthy start. Great starts equal great production. Poor starts result in production problems. The challenge is that, at that very crucial time in their lives, we tend to look at calves as a group and from too far away. Not walking up close and personal with calves is like assessing the performance of cars by watching them as they pass by on the highway. As long as the traffic keeps moving, we could assume that all the cars are in good working order. We all know it takes much more careful analysis and maintenance to get longevity and performance from a car. The same applies to calves on a farm.

What Should You Be Looking For?

In the simplest terms, calf managers are looking for indicators of potential problems. Not once a day. Not once a week. They check calves often, walking through from youngest to oldest to avoid transmitting diseases. Is every calf healthy? There are so many factors that can influence the final result that regular oversight is important. The key is to be on the lookout for danger signals. Don’t overlook anything.

Head to Tails

Everyone who works with calves develops a list of indicators they look for, but a simple rule to follow is to do a quick check of the entire calf. Looking from head to tail…observing one section at a time is the proven way to make sure nothing slips through the cracks. You may say that you don’t have time to be this thorough, but this is actually a pretty fast and efficient way to get through the process. Of course, you can choose not to look closely. That indeed may be easier, but it would also be the most costly.

Take Note!

Unless you only have a few calves to monitor, you need to have a method for recording your notes. Memories are fallible and with other distractions all around you, it is best to have notes you can refer to and act upon as needed. Look at every calf, using whatever system you have for covering all the important points. Record the ear tag number and concerns, if there are any. It’s worth mentioning again that prudent managers work from the youngest to the oldest to keep from transmitting anything contagious from one group to the most vulnerable one. Often calves are fed by more than one person. It is paramount that records be available for any calf that is sick. The degree of sophistication of the record keeping system will depend on the size of the calf herd and the on-farm software system which is being used. A white board with the ear tag numbers of sick calves is good for the calf caretakers. It is also beneficial for herd managers. They can see at a glance how many calves are not up to par and if calf rearing protocols are working.

Start with the Big Picture. Then Work End to End.

When you observe a calf, the first evaluation should be of the overall health suggested by the coat and the attitude of the animal. A rough hair coat on several calves may be a reason to check closer into calf health over the past few months. Calves that catch your eye may do so because they have shaggy, dull or off color hair coats. Shiny black body hair is one indicator that calves are in good health. Speaking of eye-catching, healthy calves will be aware of you and respond to your presence. If they fail to do so and are lethargic or disinterested, you should note the calf number and pen for further follow up. Healthy calves interact with their environment. Sick calves will separate themselves and could even be unresponsive if you enter into their flight zone. Look for and take note of any unusual behavior.

“Head and Shoulder, Ears and Nose “

After your general overview, it’s time to check much closer. The eyes of calves, the same as with humans, are good indicators of the health of the calf. When health is good, the calf’s eyes will be bright and shiny. The presence of tears, mucus or thick discharge indicates that something needs attention. As well, drooling of saliva, when not sucking on a bottle, is a type of discharge that should receive follow-up.

Sticking with observation around the head, it is time to note the ears. In healthy animals, there is no crusty discharge and the ears are carried straight out and are responsive to noises. A sick calf conversely has droopy ears.

If you’re familiar with the exercise song, “Head and shoulders, knees and toes”, just give it a slight variation to “Head and shoulders, ears and nose!”. This easy to remember phrase can be a helpful checkpoint in monitoring the` health status of individual calves. Having checked the head carriage and stance of the calf, follow up with a quick look at the ears and nose. As with the ears, we are looking for an unusual discharge. While a wet nose is alright, a snotty discharge should raise concern.

BODY CHECK: Breathing, Bellybuttons, and Bulges

In looking at the calf head to tail, our next area of observation is the main body of the calf. Observe the chest for an indication of ease of breathing. The rise and fall of the calf’s chest indicate respiratory rate and should be neither faster nor slower than other calves around her. Listen for any raspiness or wheezing or calves that are taking shallow breaths. This will help you to determine if there may be a respiratory infection. Drooling from the mouth, if not already noted, is definitely a trigger now for taking the calf’s temperature and then implementing protocols to care for this sick calf.

“Where does it hurt? “

If only calves could talk, that would be the first question to ask. However, since they can’t, we must rely on how things look. As you walk through the calf pens, make a special effort to look at navels. Swelling is one thing you’re looking for. It can be caused by either a navel infection or an umbilical hernia. If your herd is using iodine as a navel dip, it should be obvious for the first day or two after dipping, because of the yellow staining. If you don’t see staining reevaluate your dipping protocol. Overlooking an effective dipping protocol can lead to problems such as navel infection and swollen joints. Once these germs settle in, it is very difficult to treat the calf successfully.

Navel-dipping protocol

To stop problems before they start, work to improve cleanliness in the calving area and improve the navel-dipping protocol.

  • Iodine for navel dipping should be the 7 percent iodine tincture.
  • Apply iodine by dipping the navel into a cup, not by spraying.
  • The dip must cover the umbilical cord and navel where the cord attaches to the body.
  • Disposable paper cups work well for dipping navels.
    • Put about an inch of fresh iodine in the bottom
    • Place the top of the cup over the navel
    • Shake the cup vigorously to thoroughly cover the umbilical cord and navel.
    • Throw away the used cup and any remaining iodine rather than trying to reuse it.
  • Even iodine can lose its disinfecting ability if it has been used over and over.

“Another pair of eyes.”

If you want to surprise yourself, ask your nutrition company consultant or veterinarian to take a look at your calves.  You may be surprised at what you learn from having what is familiar observed from a different perspective or in a more objective light.

“And so we come to the tail end!”

It would seem logical that, if we start looking at calves at the head and ears, we will most likely end with the tail.  Here we are looking for everything to be dry.  Scours always presents with a wet tail, even if you don’t see fresh manure.  If your walk through has discovered streaky walls or watery manure in the bedding, get the calves to move, and it will be easier to discover which one it is coming from. At the other end of the scale, the problem may be hard manure.  This indicates that the calf is not consuming enough water.  Clean, accessible, fresh water is a simple solution for this problem.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

Walk.  Look and listen. The goal of every dairy calf manager should be to polish the observation skills of the calf-care team until you can say, “We have the best-looking calf team anywhere!” Use all your senses and don’t overlook anything when looking over your calves.



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