Veterinarian’s Corner: Benchmarking – Start Playing Offense for Your Calves

Posted on September 18, 2020 in Starting Strong - Calf Care
By Dr. Kendra Wells, Valley Veterinary Clinic
I played a fair amount of basketball back in my day. Whether it was pick-up games or league, I played hard in each one. Now, after working hard as a veterinarian, I can’t help but draw similarities between the sport and my job as both require offense and defense.

Offense occurs when we aim to score on our opponents (pathogens that negatively affect calf health). Defense occurs when our opponent is trying to score and we scramble to beat them. Back then, I much preferred to play on offense because I was leading the plays and not reacting to my opponent.  How can we play more offense against calf pathogens?

The best place to start is by monitoring certain benchmarks, including the following five:

Total protein
By measuring serum total proteins (STP), we can set goals and determine how to achieve them. Total protein estimates if the calf received enough immunoglobulins (immune system function) from her colostrum. The current goal is an STP greater than 5.5 g/dL, but the industry is pushing toward a goal of greater than 6.0 g/dL. Not every calf needs to be measured, but taking a sub-sample of 10 calves at least every three months is important.

If the STPs aren’t where you want them to be, take a step back and search for answers. One of my clients asked if we could discuss colostrum feeding with farm employees as STPs were low. In the meeting, the employees admitted that the cows weren’t giving more than 1 quart of colostrum, so many calves were receiving second milkings. This was news to us, but now we knew to step back and focus on the dry cow program. Without monitoring STPs, we would have never known there was a problem on the cow end.

Weight monitoring
How do you determine who your star athlete is in your calf barn? If you have no idea where to start, simply begin tracking weight at birth and at weaning. By tracking this benchmark, you will know how well your calves are growing and if they are hitting their appropriate gains. You don’t need a fancy scale; a weight tape or a measuring tape is fine. Based on the Dairy Calf and Heifer Association’s (DCHA) Gold Standards, producers should aim to double a calf’s birth weight by 60 days. If 90% of your calves double their birth weights, your program is doing well. If not, start asking yourself how you can give your players a boost.

For example, I had a client who was losing calves. As I walked around, I noticed the weaned calves appeared to be the size of a one-month old calf, which sparked some conversations on nutrition. Lo and behold, we discovered the calves were receiving too little milk and needed more calories, leading to their slow weight gains. If we would have been monitoring weights, we wouldn’t have waited until we began losing calves to make a change.

Disease rate
It is inevitable – we will have some sick calves from time to time. What we don’t want is our treatment rates to be through the roof.

It is important to monitor how many calves are treated for scours and pneumonia. After doing your treatments for the day, tally up the number of calves treated for pneumonia and the number of calves treated for scours (including electrolytes/fluids). Note how many calves were on milk that day. At the end of the month, average the number of calves that had pneumonia or scours and divide by the total number of calves on milk. This will give you a percentage (rate) of sickness in your herd. Based on DCHA Gold Standards, less than 25% of calves should be treated for scours and less than 10% of calves should be treated for pneumonia in preweaned calves. It is important not to panic about small swings when you begin monitoring as you are creating a baseline of calf health. Once you establish an expected pattern, you will easily notice a specific deviation, which may be an indication to pursue further health workups.

I had one case where one of my dairies noted an increase in shivering calves. It was odd that these calves didn’t exhibit any signs of disease until they began to shiver in the cold. Once we observed this, we took their temperature and found they had a fever. They had a slightly elevated respiratory rate, so we treated for pneumonia. When we began monitoring the data, we saw that quite a few calves were affected. Very few were dying, but many more were being treated for pneumonia. If the only thing we monitored was death rate, we wouldn’t have known to work up a disease.  But, since we were monitoring treatment rate, we noticed there was a difference.

Number of treatments per calf
Not only should you monitor treatment rates as a whole, but you should also monitor how many pneumonia treatments are given to an individual calf. In most cases, calves should not need more than two to three treatments for clinical pneumonia. If they receive more than that, it is time to look at deeper, underlying issues.

About a year ago, I did a small trial for one of our herds. We had an inkling that calves were receiving a lot of treatments, but we didn’t know how much. When we ran the records, some calves were treated nine times for pneumonia before they were weaned. Treatments can help calves improve, but they can also hinder improvement when used in excess as they act as a bandage to the underlying problem.

Death rate
Measuring death rate is not the most fun to do, but it can give us another baseline number. Keep count, either in a notebook or in your computer, of how many calves die per month. Review this number monthly to quarterly along with your treatment rate information. The DCHA recommends a death rate of less than 2% in calves between 24 hours to 60 days old. Our goal with this benchmark is to create a baseline and monitor any deviations from normal. When there is an increase, it is important to work it up to ensure you can stop an outbreak before it becomes worse.

Remember, if you’re not benchmarking your calves, it is difficult to play offense for them and solve underlying issues. Monitoring STPs, calf weights, disease rates, number of treatments per calf, and death rate is just the beginning. It will take hard work to implement and develop the program. Just like any great team that wins games through perseverance, your program will also sharpen as you persevere through making improvements to calf health.

Category: Animal health
Calf and heifer nutrition
Starting Strong - Calf Care