Monitoring performance on our dairies has started to become the normal rather than the exception. Today we have technologies like milk weights in the parlor, rumination monitors, and programs like DC305 to tell us when our dairy cows are starting to veer off track before we have a train wreck. Unfortunately, in the dairy calf and heifer world, sometimes it seems we are light years behind.

Many times we do not realize there is a problem in our heifer management until we need to call the vet to post some calves. I frequently encounter “poor-doing” groups that weaned with low gains and lots of respiratory disease. These may all be indicators for intervention, but they are certainly after the point where cost-effective intervention can be made.

What are appropriate measures to monitor growth and health? 1. Calf weight – Calf weight is by far the easiest and cheapest way to monitor calf growth. The most precise way to do this is to purchase a scale and weigh calves at birth and weaning. Scales can be expensive, but are accurate. A portable and cheaper option would be weigh tape. These are not as precise, but when used consistently by the same person, we can still get a decent idea of individual calf performance against the performance of the group as a whole. Regardless of method, the birth weight should be subtracted from the wean weight to calculate an average daily gain (ADG). ADG’s on high performance calves range between 1.7 – 2.0 pounds per day from birth to wean.

2. Respiratory health scoring – Some of you have heard me talk about the University of Wisconsin Madison’s method of scoring respiratory disease. This is a tool utilized during high risk periods (at or before weaning) to ensure that calves are well before they undergo stress. We know that respiratory calves are not always easy to pick out, but spending the time to identify these calves before they become very, very sick saves the dairy money and efficiency of gains during and after weaning. This tool can be found at the address below:

3. Serum Total Proteins –These are a mainstay of monitoring good calf health at birth. Serum total proteins (STP) are a way to gauge if calves are getting sufficient antibodies from colostrum. Serum total proteins require a minimal amount of equipment and can be carried out by on-farm personnel. Additionally, results are immediate, allowing for early intervention to reduce the risk of subsequent groups getting sick. Getting set up is easy, but it does take a little planning. Talk your Prairie Livestock Supply veterinarian or representative for more information.

4. Colostrum records – Recording when the calf was born, who feeds colostrum, when they fed it, from what cow, the temperature of the colostrum, volume of colostrum fed, and the quality grade of colostrum is important to identify problems with our colostrum program before they happen consistently. If we know STP aren’t good, we can then go back in the colostrum records and identify why calves may not be getting enough antibodies, saving valuable time for intervention.

With the new year, I would encourage you, the dairy producer, to make it your New Year’s resolution to identify opportunities early. Call the VMC or Prairie Livestock Supply at 1-800-626-7768 and we would be happy to help you custom implement these strategies on your dairy or calf ranch. Here’s to good calf health in 2014!

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