Management practices that make a real difference.

Alyssa Dietrich graduated from Penn State University in 2013 with a B. S. degree in Animal Sciences. During the summer of of 2013 she interned with Elanco Animal Health. She obtained an M.S. degree in Dairy Science at Virginia Tech and was part of a joint study with Dr. Whitney Knauer on the management of automatic calf feeders. Read more …

Alyssa Dietrich graduated from Penn State University in 2013 with a B. S. degree in Animal Sciences. During the summer of of 2013 she interned with Elanco Animal Health. She obtained an M.S. degree in Dairy Science at Virginia Tech and was part of a joint study with Dr. Whitney Knauer on the management of automatic calf feeders. Read more …

By in Calf Management on January 24, 2022
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Management practices that make a real difference

Author Alyssa Dietrich

Alyssa Dietrich graduated from Penn State University in 2013 with a B. S. degree in Animal Sciences. During the summer of of 2013 she interned with Elanco Animal Health. She obtained an M.S. degree in Dairy Science at Virginia Tech and was part of a joint study with Dr. Whitney Knauer on the management of automatic calf feeders. Since August of 2015 she has been a Calf and Heifer Specialist with Cargill serving the mid-Atlantic states in the US. 

Perhaps the most common challenge with group housing autofeeder systems is bovine respiratory disease (BRD). According to a 2014 NAHMS study, 12% of preweaned heifers were affected by respiratory disease. The challenge with respiratory disease is that although there are immediate costs involved with treatment the more serious concern is that calves with respiratory disease in the first 8 weeks of life produced less milk and had less herd longevity than those with no disease

Farms struggling with these issues are always seeking a solution that is both easy to execute and effective. The first thing we all look for is a quick fix. “What additives can I feed?” “What sanitizer will kill everything?” These things can be helpful tools in your toolbox, but if other critical conditions are not met, they are a waste of money. Finding the best balance between affordability, simplicity, and efficacy is a goal of mine when working with producers. As you can imagine, the least expensive or easiest to execute solution is not always the most effective. Conversely, making a costly and complicated change, (e.g., building a brand-new calf facility) may be highly beneficial to calf health, but is not always feasible.

There are several key management practices I have found that are worthwhile on most farms using autofeeders:

  • Excellent newborn management
  • Frequent cleaning of bedding
  • Frequent cleaning of drinking water
  • Feeding calves individually until 14 days of age

Before trying to fix BRD with the following recommendations, two critical pieces of the calf program must be adequate: the feeding plan and the vaccination program. When feeding calves in an autofeeder, it is necessary that calves receive a peak of at least 8.0 L milk or milk replacer to avoid cross suckling and crowding around the feeder. Of course, this high plane of nutrition is beneficial because it provides sufficient energy when a calf experiences an immune challenge as well. Regarding vaccines, work with your vet to ensure you have a dry cow and calf vaccination protocol that is the best fit for your farm. Without an adequate feeding plan or a well-designed vaccination program, you may continue to fight calf health challenges despite making improvements elsewhere.

Newborn management
To most producers, this should be an obvious one. Clean, high-quality colostrum is essential to preparing the calf for all challenges to the immune system. I have found that following the first colostrum feeding with one or two additional feedings of colostrum or transition milk makes a substantial difference in calf health. It is important to keep in mind that poor colostrum management does not always result in BRD in the first few weeks of life. Often, direct effects of poor colostrum management transpire as scours in the first week. However, many times the calves that have early life scours are the ones that struggle with BRD later. For more details on excellent colostrum management, check out

Proper navel sanitation is also critical, and we often forget how important it is to overall calf health. The freshly broken umbilical cord provides a direct avenue to the blood stream. Thus, when pathogens are allowed access to the cord, it does not just present risk for a navel infection, but may cause joint, lung, and other tissue infections. Check out this link for helpful tips on navel sanitation:

Frequent cleaning of bedding
This recommendation often seems like more work than it is worth, but I have found it is one of the simplest changes that can make a huge improvement for calves struggling with BRD. I’m often asked how to improve air quality in calf barns. Consider why this is a frequently asked question. Group housed calves are sharing air and constantly breathing in soiled air near the surface of bedding. Additionally, calves on autofeeders are typically fed 8-12 L or more of milk or replacer, so calves are likely producing more urine and feces than traditionally raised calves. Contaminated air increases the risk for the spread of pathogens between calves and can irritate the respiratory tract. Keeping bedding fresh and dry is also important for preventing calves’ loss of energy. A calf’s ability to nest in the bedding affects her risk of developing BRD. Lago et al. (2006) found that calves housed in barns were less likely to develop respiratory disease when nesting score was increased. The ideal nesting score is 3, in which the legs of calves are not visible when lying.

What I typically tell farms struggling with BRD is to first try cleaning out bedding twice as often as they usually do and see how this improves rates of BRD. For example, if they are only cleaning it once every two months, clean it monthly; if they are cleaning it every two weeks, clean it weekly.

Left picture: Example of nesting score of 1; calf’s legs visible on bedding.
Middle and right picture: Examples of ideal nesting score of 3; calves’ legs not visible when lying.

Ventilation and Bedding Area Per Calf
Air quality also depends on ventilation and barn design. A calf barn must be able to bring in fresh air, with an air exchange rate of at least four exchanges per hour every day of the year, no matter the weather. Positive pressure tube ventilation is a popular option. I recommend working with a professional that is trained in designing ventilation systems to find the best fit for your barn.

Although autofeeders are designed to feed up to about 25 calves per pen, I have found tht many barns are not designed to house this many calves. Each pen should have a minimum of 35 ft2 of bedded resting area per calf. At certain times of the year, many farms are overcrowded with calves, so I suggest designing pens for the maximum number of calves you expect per pen.

Frequent cleaning of drinking water
I admit that this is one of the areas where I sometimes become complacent when doing a calf facility walkthrough. It is so common to see dirty waterers in calf pens. Let’s be clear; drinking water is one of the most essential components to animal health, but it is frequently overlooked. Of course, water is necessary for keeping the calf hydrated and encouraging starter intake and rumen development. In an autofeeder pen, a shared waterer is also a means of spreading pathogens. I suggest cleaning the water and debris out at least daily and a thorough cleaning with a brush and soap at least weekly.

calf waterer

Left picture: Example of unacceptable amount of debris in waterer.
Right picture: Example of cleaning waterer. Water should always be this clean.

When deciding which practices to implement to make improvements to calf health, I recommend not only considering what is easiest or least expensive to implement. Consider the treatment cost and labor savings of an effective program and choose the protocols that are most likely to give you the best return on investment.

Alyssa Dietrich, Cargill Animal Nutrition

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Dubrovsky, S. A., A. L. Van Eenennaam, S. S. Aly, B. M. Karle, P. V. Rossitto, M. W. Overton, T. W. Lehenbauer, J. G. Fadel. 2020. Preweaning cost of bovine respiratory disease (BRD) and cost-benefit of implementation of preventative measures in calves on California dairies: The BRD 10K study. J. Dairy Sci. 103:1583-1597. DOI: 10.3168/jds.2018-15501.
Dunn, T. R., T. L. Ollivett, D. L. Renaud, K. E. Leslie, S. J. LeBlanc, T. F. Duffield, D. F. Kelton. 2018. The effect of lung consolidation, as determined by ultrasonography, on first-lactation milk production Holstein dairy calves. J. Dairy Sci. 101:5404-5410. DOI:
Lago, A., S. M. McGuirk, T. B. Bennett, N. B. Cook, and K. V. Nordlund. 2006. Calf Respiratory Disease and Pen Microenvironments in Naturally Ventilated Calf Barns in Winter. J. Dairy Sci. 89:4014-4025. DOI: 10.3168/jds.S0022-0302(06)72445-6. 
NAHMS (National Animal Health Monitoring System). 2018. Dairy 2014: Health and Management Practices on U.S. Dairy Operations, 2014. Accessed Dec. 20 2021.

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