Hoard's Dairyman article: Bringing past success to the new calf barn

calf and heifer

Bringing past success to the new calf barn

by David A. Rhoda, D.V.M.
The author is a senior partner in the Evansville Veterinary Service, Evansville, Wis.


Calves are weaned in groups with all-in, all-out calf housing which enables you to sanitize the entire facility before a new set of calves are started.

Sam is building a new calf barn. Calves had moved continuously through the old facility, allowing the buildup of common calfhood pathogens. He had made the old barn work, and it made him nervous to fix something that wasn’t broken.

We know the seasonal issues that exist. We know the pathogens that are endemic. We know the pattern of problems that occur and are satisfied with both the incidence rate and outcomes of the treatments done. In short, Sam’s system is stable, and changing facilities meant we need to match what currently is working. The objective is to make it even better.

We are very comfortable with our understanding of the current situation. Our challenge is to make sure we develop the same understanding of the balance between facility, calf, management practices, and health issues in the new facility.

The change is to an all-in, all-out system. As calves are born, they gradually fill separate housing units for calves born during a given week. They then are weaned as a group so that, instead of sanitizing zones of the housing to prepare for new calves, the entire facility is sanitized so that each set of new calves starts with a clean facility.

A powerful tool . . .
This is a powerful biosecurity advantage to reduce exposure from pathogen building up in the environment. And you avoid housing younger and older calves together.
Colostrum management always is the first step on any dairy. Our current program is to receive a gallon of colostrum at birth. We periodically measure serum proteins by randomly sampling a few of our newborns to determine the proportion that have greater than 5.5 g/dl serum proteins. This monitor serves as a general herd measure, but there is an opportunity to make an improvement to our process here.

Identify high risks . . .
We could do serum tests on all calves and identify the high-risk calves that are more likely to have a health issue in the future. We use a similar principle with our fresh cows by identifying three predisposing factors that can cause more fresh cow problems: body condition scores less than 2.5 or greater than 4, calving ease greater than 3, and factors at calving like twins or a stillborn calf. Why shouldn’t this principle work with calves, also? Since we already record the calving ease, an improvement in our current system would be to see that the information follows the calf so we remember individuals at risk.

Calves with less than 5.5 g/dl serum protein levels represents a second piece of medical history which is likely to lead to future health issues. By seeing that the information follows the calf, at the minimum, we can watch high-risk calves more intently and have earlier detection.

Managing the calorie intake of our calves through our seasons is good currently. Since we are in Wisconsin, feeding adequately for cold weather has greater meaning for us. Having a new facility means we will have a modestly different temperature pattern to get used to.
It will be easier to provide a clean environment with starting off a new group. But we’ve a plan currently in place for cleaning zones of stalls that will be refilled in the continuous flow barn.

Clean utensils vital . . .
However, starting with a clean stall is only a portion of the current plan. The choring pattern includes time to clean the feeding utensils daily. I can’t help thinking this may be the most significant part of our processes for prevention of spread of pathogens. As we are setting up our standard operating procedures, we want the make sure this continues to happen with the same care in the new facility.

The consistency of feeding both from the amount of milk per feeding and feeding time is incorporated into our choring pattern. Our concern here is to make sure we remember the importance of this as we are establishing a new timetable for choring. A new facility or, more accurately, several smaller buildings means developing a new timetable. We must make sure it is consistent for the calves every day.

The final piece of our “care package” is assuring comfort for the calves. We currently use a straw nest, and that won’t change.

The parallels between our health care for the preweaned calves and the fresh cows are significant to note. It is inevitable that there are going to be some health issues to detect and deal with in each of these two management groups.

We can only manage the incidence of the problems with our skills with the five care portions for the preweaned calves (colostrum, calories, cleanliness, consistency, and comfort) or by careful management for the transition dry cow. Fresh cow conditions are well defined, and there is an expected pattern of timing of metabolic problems. A similar statement about expected ages for finding infectious problems can be made for the pre-weaned calf.

Diligent monitoring needed . . .
Therefore, just as we have a daily fresh cow evaluating process for detection of the fresh cow problems that do occur, the preweaned calf also has a daily process in place for the early detection of the diarrheas and pneumonias that do occur. Our comfort about the current situation doesn’t come from having the daily process in place for early detection of the conditions that are inevitable. Our comfort comes from knowing that we understand the causes of expected pattern. We can monitor changes from the expected because of a simple record plan that only has to record ID, date, severity, and treatment used. This is all we need to track prevalence and shifts in the age at which conditions occur which is how we know when to diagnose a shift in pathogen.

Changing the facility won’t eradicate health issues, and we do fully expect a shift in patterns that will need to be learned. Records that monitor for the shifts in disease patterns that could require diagnostics and the ability to monitor outcomes and treatments is in place and needs no modifying.

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