← Return to Home Page

Managing pre-weaned calves takes well-defined SOPs, trained employees


By Dr. David Welch

One of the most challenging dairy  management areas involves feeding and managing pre-weaned calves. Turning over these responsibilities to an untrained employee can be a disaster. For an individual to be successful, they require thorough training, along with an understanding of how disease occurs. It may help to empower them to make suggestions about overall dry cow and maternity pen management, areas affecting their success even before they take over management of the calves.

The principles for developing Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for managing pre-weaned calves are the same as for other management areas:

1) Plan for results. Tie the SOP to a business goal. Establish benchmarks to evaluate success. The first step in developing calf-raising protocols is to define realistic expectations, especially when working with inexperienced employees. Goals should relate to disease incidence (<10% incidence of diarrhea, 2% incidence of pneumonia), mortality (1%) and rate of gain (195 lbs. weight by two months of age).

A good source of disease incidence and management benchmark information is the National Animal Health and Monitoring System. According to the “Dairy Heifer Raiser, 2011” published by USDA’s Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) in October 2012, surveyed heifer raisers reported 25.3% of pre-weaned calves suffered from diarrhea or bloat, with 18.2% requiring treatment. About 18% of pre-weaned calves contracted respiratory disease (primarily pneumonia), with 16.4% requiring treatment. Overall, 4.2% of pre-weaned and 1.6% of weaned calves died from these diseases.

2) Create a first draft. The process should be broken down into several well-defined, easy-to-follow steps. Key issues related to pre-weaned calves include:
• Colostrum. Must feed high-quality colostrum as soon as possible. Highest absorption is within first 4 hours. Feed 4 quarts.
• Vaccination program. Strategically design vaccination program to address the herd’s needs. One size does not fit all.
• Water. Fresh, clean, easily accessible, available at least 2x/day.
• Biosecurity. Control/monitor all livestock, equipment and people entering calf areas.
• Calving area. Use individual maternity pens.
• Calf temperature. Use a rectal thermometer regularly.
• Designated worker. Daily calf chores by done by the same person(s).
• Calf stress. Any changes in routine will stress calves.
• Isolation. Keep calves separated to prevent physical contact.
• Clean dry environments. Moist, dirty bedding is stressful and breeds disease.
• Quality care. Each calf needs to be treated with consistent individual care.

3) Conduct an internal review. Share a copy of the draft with employees. Success is more likely if employees are involved, have ownership and do not feel that SOPs are being imposed on them. Employee involvement may help identify good ideas or ways to save steps and make the process easier to implement. However, protocols should always focus on the “key issues” above.

4) Conduct an external review. It is crucial that SOPs be reviewed by advisers, such as veterinarians, nutritionists and Extension staff. They may suggest changes to make steps clearer and easier to follow.

5) Test. How well a SOP performs in the workplace will indicate the effectiveness of the SOP. Have employees and a person not familiar with the work test the SOP exactly as it is written. Any steps that are confusing may need to be rewritten.

6) Post. Post the final draft so that it is easily accessible by employees. In some cases it may be posted in large text so that it may be reviewed while the task is being completed.

7) Train. Train staff to follow the SOP exactly. Share why it is important to follow each step.
Success in pre-weaned calf raising can occur if there are logical SOPs, a spirit of teamwork (including nutritionists and veterinarians), and a calf raiser who is empowered to make substantive changes in management, from the pre-fresh pen through to the individual calf pen or hutch.

Dr. David Welch, VMD, is one of two Dairy Decisions Consultants for Employees (DDCe) with the Pennsylvania Center for Dairy Excellence. For more information, phone: 717.346.0849 or visit www.centerfordairyexcellence.org.