Veterinarian’s Corner: The Secret to Consistent Calf Performance

Posted on March 2, 2021 in Starting Strong - Calf Care
By Dr. Sara Barber and Dan Bakker, Foundation Livestock Service co-owners
Tell me about your calf performance over the last year.  Is it “pretty good,” not too many death losses, pneumonia “only when the weather changes,” calves “look like they are really growing?”  Do you get tired of the roller coaster?

When raising calves, is consistent, excellent, predictable performance even possible and what is it going to cost?

There is a secret to a best-cost calf program, and it is not in a bottle or a bag.  The secret is simple, repeatable systems with timely feedback to frontline staff who are performing the work.  Every problem is the result of a broken process.  Fix the process and the problem will go away – every time.

The first step is to believe that change is possible.  Your calf team is more than capable of delivering quality support for the calves.  Your calves have the potential to excel.  Respecting your team is critical; disrespect destroys communication and engagement.

Once you believe change is possible, work on consistent communication.  Our favorite communication tool is the weekly whiteboard team meeting.  This is a 15- to 20-minute meeting focused on continuous improvement.  There are a few keys elements to this meeting:

  1. Have it every week at the same time in the barn standing around a white board
  2. Everyone on the team should attend the meeting and participate
  3. Write everything on the board
  4. Use a consistent agenda.  For example:
    1. What went well last week?
    2. What opportunities/challenges did you encounter?
    3. Share a couple key performance metrics
    4. What are the next steps to address the opportunities?

Here is an example of how this meeting might go:

  • What went well last week?  Newborn calves were aggressive, calves were bedded on schedule.
  • What opportunities/challenges did you encounter?  More scours, electrolyte administration takes extra time.
  • Share a couple key performance metrics.  90% of calves passed the serum total proteins test, and 75% of milk feedings were between 102 to 105 degrees F.
  • Next steps:
    • Call service personnel to check the hot water heater element:  Maria
    • Save as-fed milk samples to check bacteria counts:  Juan
    • Have two people help with electrolytes to keep the day on schedule:  Alex and Bob

Whomever is leading the meeting should ask, “Who can do this?” versus assigning action items.  If you have this meeting every week, you will improve communication.  This should not be a meeting where the manager tells everyone what to do (which actually has a negative effect on the meeting).  It is a place for two-way communication and honest feedback.  Everyone should have action items, not just the manager.  The talent on your team will help your farm grow if you open a path for that talent to flow.

You don’t have to have all the answers.  Don’t be afraid to hire a “coach” to help you.  If you have a coach that is not helping you move forward, find another one focused on getting the basics correct.

Does this idea scare you a little?  That is OK, new things are scary, but you can’t truly improve without making a change.  You have already gone years relying on silver bullets and ending back where you started a short time later.  An engaged team and excellent, consistent, predictable performance are in your future.  Believe that and unlock the secret right on your farm.

Category: Animal handling
Employee management
Starting Strong - Calf Care