Dairy advice: Areas to improve calf health on your farm

Getting calf health right on farm is a key pillar to having a successful calving season, with it having a major impact on workload during this period.

The spring-calving period is the busiest period on the majority of dairy farms, with a large number of cows calving in a short time frame.

Although this does make the system somewhat simpler, it can also create a number of issues around the management of calves.

Improved management of calves results in an easier rearing process.

Colostrum for calf health

The importance of colostrum is not lost on dairy farmers at this stage, however, ensuring the quality of the colostrum is good enough should be a focus.

A brix refractometer can be used to determine if the colostrum quality is good enough and will offer the required level of antibodies for calves.

Only colostrum over 22% should be fed to calves as this means the colostrum contains 50mg/ml of immunoglobulins.

Feeding colostrum is also vital if you have vaccinated cows for scour, as it is from the colostrum that this protection is passed onto the calves.

Although not a silver bullet when it comes to calf health, vaccinations can aid in keeping calves healthier.

If scour or pneumonia have been issues on your farm, along with changing management practices, vaccinating your calves could be a help.

Again, management practices are going to be the biggest factor, whether that be how the shed is cleaned and disinfected prior to calving, or how calves are managed when they are in situ.

Stocking rates

Ahead of calving getting underway, you should determine the number of calves that each of your pens can hold.

Each calf requires 1.5m² of lying space/calf and an air space of 7m³/calf.

E.g., if your pen is 6m x 3m, then the area of the pen is 18m2, you then divide this by 1.5m² – which determines what each pen can house.

Using this example, a maximum of 12 calves/pen can be housed in this pen.

If pen space is at a premium, you have time to look at other options such as calf hutches or repurposing other sheds.

Over stocking a shed will have a detrimental impact on calf health and likely result in increased sickness within the calves.


Although air flow in the shed is important for calf health, it should not be at the cost of temperature.

Young calves ideally need a temperature of between 15-20°C, however this is almost impossible to achieve during the spring.

The temperature requirements can be offset by offering calves a deep bed of dry straw and/or the use of calf jackets.

Improving ventilation in your calf shed, along with reducing draughts, should improve calf health and thus calf performance.

Any areas of the shed that could potentially be causing a draught should be fixed ahead of the start of calving next year.

A longer-term improvement for a calf shed is the improvement of the ventilation of the calf shed.

A way of improving air movement is the use of Yorkshire boarding; this can be retrofitted to older houses.

Image source: Teagasc

Yorkshire boarding can often be mistakenly identified as space boarding – the key difference is that Yorkshire boarding has two lays of board.

Making significant changes to the calf shed is not likely going to happen between now and the arrival of calves onto the farm.

But it is important to get an understanding of where your calf shed might be letting you down in terms of its design.

Calf health

Improving calf health on farm requires that multiple factors fall into place and farmers understanding the weaknesses within their system is vital.

Having an understanding of the weaknesses within your own calf-rearing process ensures that improvements can be made.

Without this understanding, the same issues are likely to occur and calf welfare and the enterprise will suffer as a result.

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