Dairy Australia’s six tips for healthier calves this season

By Country News

By Dr Stephanie Bullen

Dairy Australia animal health and fertility lead

Calving season is a busy and stressful time.

By implementing a few tips, you can have healthier calves and less headaches.

Calving paddock hygiene

Did you know that most bugs causing calf scours in the first week of life come from mud and manure on cows’ teats?

Heavy stocking rates, low spots, leaking or eroded troughs and the use of hay rings all allow teats to become contaminated.

Strip grazing and shifting the fence regularly can significantly reduce the contamination on cows’ teats. Consider any more than two pats of manure per square metre too high.

If water is visible in your gumboot prints, the paddock is too wet.

While waterlogging can be difficult to manage in a wet winter, consider if there’s another paddock you can move cows to.


Improving colostrum management is often one of the biggest improvements that can be made to calf rearing on any farm.

Up to 30 per cent of calf deaths are caused by inadequate colostrum intake and more than 60 per cent of calves left on their dams do not receive enough colostrum.

The four ‘Q’ rules of thumb for colostrum are: Quantity (10 per cent of body weight), Quickly (divided into two feeds, the first within 12 hours and the second within 24 hours), Quality (greater than 22 per cent brix reading) and sQueaky clean (minimising bacterial contamination and growth).

Did you know:

● Only the colostrum from the first milking after calving is suitable for newborn calves.

● The longer it takes to milk a cow after calving, the poorer the quality of her colostrum.

● The older the calf is, the poorer the absorption of colostrum.

● Colostrum needs to be clean and kept cool — bacteria also reduces absorption of colostrum.

A tip for storing any leftover colostrum for up to 24 hours is in a clean bucket with a lid, with two to three frozen two-litre milk bottles (replaced regularly) to keep the colostrum at around 4°C.

Navel cord care

There are several bugs that can enter a calf's bloodstream via a wet navel cord and cause navel infections, joint infections and meningitis.

Reduce the risk by dipping or spraying the navel at the same time as feeding colostrum with either 70 per cent alcohol, iodine or chlorhexidine disinfectant.

Clean and dry bedding

Bugs that cause calf disease survive very well in moist environments.

The choice of bedding material will depend on cost and availability, but bark chips tend to be very absorbent, with good insulation and low palatability.

Ensure bedding is at least 15 cm deep and topped up as soon as it becomes contaminated or wet.

Fix leaking troughs, don’t leave hoses running and ensure good drainage around the shed to stop bedding becoming wet.


Calves usually do best on higher volume feeding systems or fortified milk (where milk replacer is added to whole milk).

Milk alone does not provide adequate water intake for calves. In one research study, calves not given access to water grew 40 per cent less over a four-week period than calves offered free access to water.

A good quality concentrate should be offered from three days of age.

Fibre is important too, but poor-quality fibre (for example, straw) creates a ‘fill’ effect and reduces appetite.

Most meals and mueslis alone usually provide adequate fibre.

Treating scours

Managing dehydration is the most important aspect of treating a scouring calf.

Electrolyte solutions should never be added to milk. Allow at least two hours between milk feeds and electrolytes, to avoid interference with digestion.

As an example, a 50 kg calf with mild to moderate scouring and minimal dehydration will require about 7.5 litres of fluids divided into two to three feeds on the first day and five litres per day until recovered.

Antibiotics are not usually required unless scouring calves are dull, have a high temperature or blood in the faeces.

Antibiotics containing ceftiofur (critically important for human health) should only be used in calves under direct and written advice from your vet and if laboratory testing has been done.

For more information, speak to your dairy cattle vet or contact your local Dairy Australia regional extension officer.