Sleep, lots and lots of sleep!

On average, young calves sleep 16 hours a day and will lay down an additional 2-5 hours, meaning that calves spend between 18 and 21 hours a day laying in their “beds”.  Well this may sound like the life, it does come with some unique management challenges.  Like fawns, calves are classified as a hider species. This means the dam will guide their calves to a hidden spot after birth where they will remain lying unless they are nursing. As they get older they will start to move around more, but will still spend much of their time either sleeping or eating.   As time budget, for a young calf, sleep and food are very important.  When calves are housed away from the dam on bedding, the surface they are lying on is also very important.  Ideally, we want to house them on bedding that is clean, dry, and allows the calves to be comfortable and maintain their body temperature.  

The cleanliness of calf bedding is very important for preventing navel infections, respiratory disease, and diarrhea- the top three calf killers and money drainers.  All penning, hutch surfaces, and floor surfaces need to be well cleaned between each calf to prevent the build up of bacteria and virus in the environment.  Bugs can spread up through bedding quickly, so making sure the surface being bedded is clean.

For hutches, this means moving the hutches between calves to allow the sun to reach the surface and help disinfect it. It may also include occasionally removing the soil and gravel from the area to remove accumulated manure and bugs.   For indoor housing, using a good cleaner to reduce the bio-film on the cement and penning is essential.  On our farm, we use Bio-Solve Plus® as our detergent to clean our floors and penning.  However, regardless of what detergent you use to clean - remember soap scum!  The scourge of showers everywhere, if a soap (detergent) dries to a surface it creates a film that is hard to remove.  This is not only a problem in showers, in your barns it will protect the bacteria from the water – undoing everything you tried to do.   So, remember, lather, rinse, and repeat…. between each calf!

  Once you have a clean base for the bedding, it is important to keep the bedding dry. If you look at basic physics, what goes in must come out.  As an industry we have started to feed more biologically appropriate volumes of milk.  Moving from 10% of body weight, ( 4 L/ day) up to 20% of body weight and in some cases as much as calves are willing to drink, which could exceed 14 L /day.  This has resulted in healthier, and better growing calves, but it also means more liquid passing through the calf.  This means more bedding is needed to keep the pens dry. Drainage is important. In 2012, there was a neat research project conducted by Camiloti and colleagues that showed that calves could detect a difference between sawdust that was 90% versus 78% dry matter, and clearly preferred the dryer sawdust.  Calves almost completely avoided sawdust that had 30% dry matter.  Indicating a clear preference for dryer surfaces.   Besides just preference for their own comfort, wet bedding will leach the energy from the calves in the winter, and on any cool summer nights. Remember a newborn calf’s thermoneutral zone is between  10C (50 F) and 25C (78F), while a one-month old calf’s thermoneutral zone is between 0 C (32F) and 25C (78F).  So, what is the solution?  One solution is to ensure good drainage.  Many experts support the use of deep gravel base under calf hutches to aid in drainage.  The downside to this is that as bedding and manure get mixed into the gravel, cleanliness becomes an issue and the gravel will need to be periodically replaced.  Alternatively, there is sloped cement as an option.  This makes cleaning easier but there are limits to drainage and additional bedding will be needed. 

Whichever drainage system is used, what is important is to evaluate the bedding calves are lying on and then adjust bedding practices to ensure your calves are kept dry.  Many of you have probably heard of the knee test which involves dropping to your knees and seeing if your knees get wet.  Well, if you are like me, there are a few issues with that test.  One, I don’t wear fabric outer-wear.  When working with calves the ability to clean and disinfect pants is a great benefit so I wear rubber pants that I can wash as I have yet to meet a calf that won’t try and get poop on you.  The second problem of the knee test is that even if I did wear cloth pants I don’t want to spend the day with wet knees – also a reason for the rubber pants! For this reason, the knee test just doesn’t get done.  However, there is a simple solution.  Paper-towel.  Put the paper towel down between you and the ground and test multiple pens/multiple areas.  This way you can get the benefit of seeing if your pens are dry without spending the day with manure stains.  As a general rule, if the paper is wet after 20 seconds then you need to either add bedding or change it out.  Remember calves with diarrhea put out a lot more liquid than normal so will need to be bedded more frequently.

The final thing to think about when considering how much calves sleep is how comfortable they are.  If calves can nestle down into bedding they are better protected from wind, and cold.  By nestling they can reduce their exposed surface area and better maintain their core body temperature (see previous blog).  Remember lots of fresh, clean and dry bedding is essential, with deep bedded straw representing our current gold standard.  By giving calves lots to drink, and lots of time and space to sleep, they are well on their way to being healthy and making you wealthy and very wise!

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If you are curious about the study of calf preferences for bedding referred to in the main text, check out "Short communication: Effects of bedding quality on the lying behavior of dairy calves" by V. Camiloti, J. A. Fregonesi , M. A. G. von Keyserlingk , and D. M. Weary  in the Journal of Dairy Science. (95 :3380–3383 10.3168/jds.2011-5187)


sleeping calf.jpg

When you spend 75 to 85%of your time laying down..

Sometimes you have to get creative

Thinking About Navels Part 3... Finding Navels

Are you wondering if you have an issue with navels? Until you get in the pen and examine the navels of your calves, you will not be able to answer that question.    Remember, navels that are left untreated will show up in three ways: a calf that is very sick and down, as a joint infection and/or respiratory disease, or a dead calf.  If identified and treated early, there is a better chance of successful treatment and a healthy calf.

Once you have gotten skilled at evaluating an individual calf, there is a need to start developing protocols to monitor the whole group.  Since navel infections are typically first seen between 3 and 14 days of age, we carefully monitor calves starting on day 3 of age with a combination of observing behaviours, close monitoring of high risk calves, and systematic evaluation.

One of the early behavioural signs of navel infection that I have noticed is a delay in learning to drink.  If a calf is not drinking completely unassisted by 3 days of age I make sure to examine their navels.  Often these are calves that are developing a navel infection.  Just like other illnesses, calves that start off strong drinkers but then begin to drink less or slower should also be checked. (Check out my earlier blog on what calf's drinking behavior can tell you I_am_so_hungry ) 

 Calves that are born with an unusually large navel or with a very short cord, are also flagged at birth to be monitored closely.  We try to examine the calves every two to three days until the navel is dry and well healed.  If a navel infection is found, the calves born on that day are also carefully checked since they share many risk factors, including calving pen cleanliness. 

For systemic evaluation, all calves that have not been evaluated by 7 days of age are checked for navel healing.  This quick evaluation can catch any calves that are not showing clinical signs and allow for prompt treatment.  Reported rates of navel infections range from 1.3% to 25%. Top goals for navel infections is to have less than 5% of calves affected.

Take homes for navel infections

Clean and dry environment is key for preventing navel infections

Dip navels to disinfect and speed drying of cord

If you don’t look for navel infections you will find them too late

How to check calves for signs of navel ill and possible causes of infection.

Individual calf records are important for all diseases monitoring.  Knowing the health history of individual calves helps make treatment decisions, while adding up the number of animals with negative health events over periods of time can help track your progress.  Knowing when your animals are at high risk for disease can help you tailor your prevention program for your farm. 

Individual calf records are important for all diseases monitoring.  Knowing the health history of individual calves helps make treatment decisions, while adding up the number of animals with negative health events over periods of time can help track your progress.  Knowing when your animals are at high risk for disease can help you tailor your prevention program for your farm. 

Thinking about navels... (Part 2) Navel Dip

One of the main recommendations for preventing navel infections is to use a navel dip to speed up navel drying and help kill bacteria that may be on the cord.  As I prepared for this series of articles on navel infections I did a little research into what the scientific literature had to say about this practice in terms of frequency and timing of dipping.  What I found was a whole bunch of inconsistencies and a lot more questions than answers.   

What was consistent? Different dips including 7% iodine tinctures, chlorehexidine based dips, and 10% trisodium citrate have similar efficacy provided they are dipped within 30 minutes of birth.   Iodine is the most common product for dipping navels, but availability is becoming limited due to increased regulations.   What we don’t know is the value of multiple applications and application methods. Until we have more information from scientific studies, we must rely on personal experiences and recommendations from experts in the field to guide our best practices.

Remember that navel prevention starts from the second they are born.  Make sure it is a clean environment, they get high quality, clean colostrum quickly, and then dip the navel! (Photo courtesy of

Remember that navel prevention starts from the second they are born.  Make sure it is a clean environment, they get high quality, clean colostrum quickly, and then dip the navel! (Photo courtesy of

A few things that farmers, veterinarians and consultants seem to agree on – don’t reuse dip, apply immediately after birth, and make sure the entire cord is covered.  If the way that you apply the dip results in the excess dip flowing back into the container (i.e. teat dip cups) any bugs on the calf’s umbilical cord will be transferred to the container where it builds up, inactivating the dip.  So single use cups, sprays (make sure you spray the cord and not just around the cord), or pouring the dip directly from the container is the way to go.   We dip our calves 3 time in the first day (at birth, first and second feeding) with a 7% iodine solution to speed cord drying.  At the first dip after birth we typically pour the product onto the navel, while the second and third times, we typically spray as it is easier when the calf is standing.  We then closely monitor the calves for the first week, respraying calves that are at higher risk of developing navel infections once a day.  Calves at higher risk are ones with very short cords or large calves that typically have large umbilical cords.   This has been working for us - what works for you?

Thinking about navels...(Part 1)

I guess I am being optimistic in this cold weather but I am starting to prepare for summer and this led to thinking about navel infections. When the weather is hot, bacteria and flies are thriving, and everyone is busy with planting, harvesting, and the million other things that have to happen on a farm- and things can slip.  However, with navel infection it is definitely true that an ounce of prevention is worth more than a pound of cure. 

I was further reminded of that by a recent article by University of Guelph's Dr. Dave Renaud's recently published work in the Journal of Dairy Science on risk factors for death in veal calves.  Dr. Dave and colleagues found that calves that arrived at a veal facility with a navel infection were 2.4 times more likely to die in the first 21 days post arrival AND 1.8 times more likely to die during the remaining growing period relative to calves without navel infections.   

This was no surprise to me as when things go wrong and we have a calf with a navel infection, I know that she is in for a rough road.  Even when the infection is caught early and treated, I am likely to see that calf further down the road with respiratory disease.  This is why prevention is key.  

At birth, the umbilical cord provides direct access for bacteria into the body.  Risk factors for navel infections include cleanliness of calving area, cleanliness of calf pens,failure of passive transfer, a short umbilical cord (often a result of being delivered backwards or by c-section), and cross-sucking of navel.

So as we head into summer, it is important to remember all of these factors and keep management focused on prevention while keeping an eye out for new cases. 






Sorry for the nasty picture, but this is a great example of why navels must be carefully monitored - especially in the summer. 

A navel infection + flies = major problems! 

bedding picture_opt.jpg







It's important that the first things a calf is exposed to is clean bedding and colostrum - not manure and bacteria - so lots of fresh of straw.  Even if you have to recruit some extra help!

I am so hungry.. or not


A bright, healthy calf looking to explore

Healthy calves have slick hair coats, respond quickly, are bright and will have consistent drinking and eating speed.  Sick calves will isolate themselves, decrease food intake and drinking speed, stop grooming, and be slow to explore. 

Maybe I am inspired since it is almost lunch time but I thought a talk about how much milk a calf drinks and how fast can tell you about their health.  Short answer, although not completely straight forward, if a calf drinks slower or less than normal then they are likely ill or becoming ill and should be assessed.  Which they do will depend on how sick they are and how much milk they are being fed. 

High Milk levels – over 20% of body weight to all you can eat buffet!

Calves at high milk levels will drink less AND slower when they start to get sick.  Pay attention to calves that are drinking less milk and seem to be ‘playing’ with their meal rather than drinking.  These calves are not being stupid, silly, or lazy – they are babies that probably do not feel well! For those of you with automatic feeders – extra bonus for you as the machine can be set to show you these calves!  Check alarms for slow or decreased drinking!

Low milk levels

Several studies have shown that calves fed 4 L (or 4 quarts for the Americans) a day are less likely to decrease the amount they drink when sick and more likely to just drink slower, which is harder to detect.  One way is to compare to the other calves close in age, the ones that take longer to finish should be examined for illness.  (Remember the top 3 causes in calves- Diarrhea, navel infection, respiratory disease).  If they are not drinking all their milk they are likely feeling VERY sick.  

Ever wonder why they do this?  Well like all mammals and even reptiles and birds, calves react to infection with behaviour changes we call Sickness Behaviour.



Sickness behavior

Regardless of species when we get sick, we act basically the same – although the “man cold” shows some can be more dramatic about it.  We have a fever, we do not want to socialize, we sleep a lot, eat less, stop grooming.   In people, think of someone with a flu, they curl up in bed, don’t want to do anything, and will turn down invitations to do anything.  In calves, they will also try and isolate themselves, eat less, drink less, sleep lots, and perform less grooming. This will show up as calves that have a rough hair coat, drink slower or less, and if group housed will be away from others.  Individual calves will show greater reluctance to stand and less interest in exploring new things.   While you (and calves) may feel awful when sick, all these behaviors help you recover faster.  However, in and emergency you may not perform these behaviors.  For example, if your house is on fire then you will get out of the bed even if you have the flu.  Think of calves in group housing, you may see a calf that you think is maybe sick but when you try and catch her all of a sudden she is running around and looking better.  This may be a response to fear which masks the lethargy associated with illness.

Milk- Short term survival versus long-term survival

 If a calf eats less, or not at all, when sick they are also starving the bugs making them sick.  If they have enough body fat they can survive a day or two with decreased energy intake and bounce back quickly.  However, if they are fed a restricted diet (fed at 10% body weight) then they may not have the fat reserves to keep functioning during this time and could starve before getting better.  For this reason,  even when ill calves that are on restricted milk intake may have a greater motivation to drink even when sick which may make them harder to detect.  Also, those fed at lower levels take longer to recover and shed bugs longer than those fed at a higher energy level.  

Take homes

When sick calves will either drink less, drink more slowly or both – depending on how much they are fed

Calves also isolate themselves, play less, rest more, and groom less when ill

Calves fed at low levels will show less signs of illness and take longer to recover compared to those fed at higher level.

What does Evidence Based Management mean?

For those of you that have read my website you may have seen the phrase “Evidence Based Management” and wondered what does this mean? To me “Evidence Based Management” is about learning and incorporating the latest scientific evidence in a way that will benefit your specific farm.  Two examples of this can be found for one of the first steps in calf management:  Colostrum management!

Example 1: There is an abundance of evidence gathered through multiple studies that calves with failure of passive transfer are at a greater risk of disease (mortality) and death (morbidity).  While your farm may have low number of calves impacted by calf-hood disease (called prevalence or incidence in academic literature), ensuring that you provide high quality, clean colostrum in a timely manner and achieving successful passive transfer (they get enough colostrum) will help reduce the risk of outbreaks and keep your calves healthy and growing. 

While you could say, 'my calves are healthy therefor my colostrum management is good' or 'I have problems and that means colostrum is the problems', a better approach is to gather data.  Collecting blood samples from your calves when they are between 1 and 5 days of age and evaluating the serum using a Brix Refractometer (or comparable tool by your veterinarian) can tell you for sure if at least 80% of your calves have successful passive transfer.  If this is the case, you are passing the threshold that has been shown to give your animals the best chance for success.  You can then just keep your colostrum feeding program the same and monitor your calves to make sure nothing changes, or if you do not meet this threshold begin to make changes and have a clear outcome for success. 

Farm meeting, such as this one of the Lambton County Holstein Breeders Club, is a great way to get together and learn about the latest advances in dairy management!

Farm meeting, such as this one of the Lambton County Holstein Breeders Club, is a great way to get together and learn about the latest advances in dairy management!


Example 2:  The other factor of colostrum management that is both easy and important to evaluate is the cleanliness of the colostrum fed to the calves.  While you may achieve successful passive transfer, if you feed dirty colostrum with lots of bugs, your calves will still get sick.  For this reason, taking a sample of colostrum from whatever device you feed calves from (i.e. tube or nipple of bottle) will tell you if the colostrum is staying clean after it is collected from the cow and is okay to feed to your calves.   Immediately freezing the sample and having your veterinarian submit it for total plate count (here in Ontario it is usually the University of Guelph’s Animal Health Lab) will tell you how much bacteria is in the sample.  If the sample is contaminated, you can then evaluate the steps of your cleaning program by taking samples from the tank you collect the colostrum from, after it has been thawed or heated to feed the calf, after pasteurization (if you pasteurize colostrum, and the feeding device (tube or nipple).  This way you can find out where contamination is occurring on your farm and correct it.  Re-sampling can then tell you if you succeeded and monitor to make sure there is not a breakdown in cleaning protocols or equipment.

The above is an interpretation of total plate counts for milk, colostrum, or milk replacer.  All of which, if contaminated by bacteria, can make your calves sick.  Samples are an easy way to ensure you are feeding your calves the best!

The above is an interpretation of total plate counts for milk, colostrum, or milk replacer.  All of which, if contaminated by bacteria, can make your calves sick.  Samples are an easy way to ensure you are feeding your calves the best!

There are lots of examples and methods to evaluate your on-farm management for economic, welfare-friendly practices that can be integrated into your farm.  Stay tuned and follow my blog for more information!

Can a calf’s breathing tell me about how it is feeling?


Your calf is breathing faster than normal (over 50-75 breaths per minute), what does that mean?

The calf was just running and playing

               Needless to say this is a good sign.  Calves with good welfare play more and are more likely to be healthy.  However, calves that stop playing quickly or don’t play when all the others in the group are playing may be sick or stressed.  Calves that do not play for long or cough during exercise could have, or be recovering from, respiratory disease (pneumonia).  Keep an eye out for these girls.


It is hot out

               Calves (and cows) do not sweat, so when it gets hot they will increase their breathing to cool off.  Typically, calves will begin to show signs of heat stress when temperatures get above 30C (90F), with humidity causing them to be more sensitive to heat.  They are even more vulnerable to heat stress if it does not cool down at night.  Well in this case, faster breathing does not mean the calves are sick, they will need lots of water and the environment will need to be evaluated to see if they can be cooled off.  Examples include using fans, tipping huts up to increase air flow and providing extra shade.  Since calves are not great at controlling their body temperature, they are at risk of heat stress so keep a close eye on them.


Calf is sleeping, it is not too hot out…

Shhh.... Don't wake the baby!

Shhh.... Don't wake the baby!

If they are sound asleep they may be dreaming and twitching in their sleep.  If you can see their eye and it is twitching it may indicate they are in Rapid Eye Movement (REM) stage of sleep.  If you are unsure, you can wake them up.  If their breathing slows down, let them go back to sleep as growing babies need their sleep!



Calf is not sleeping or playing, and it is not hot out

A calf that does not look at you when you approach, or stands with head down, may not be feeling well. 

A calf that does not look at you when you approach, or stands with head down, may not be feeling well. 

This could indicate an issue.  Calves breathing may be elevated due to pain, illness, or compromised lungs.  Calves with active diarrhea, umbilical infection, or respiratory disease may show signs of fast breathing.  Look for these signs and take their rectal temperature, a temperature over 39.9C (103.9 F) is considered a fever and a complete health exam is needed to try and determine the root cause. 

If a calf does not have a fever, but has diarrhea, they may be in pain.   Studies have shown that providing calves with metacam (Meloxicam) when they have diarrhea allows the calf to rest easier and recover faster.  Just make sure you provide the calf with electrolytes and lots of water so it stays hydrated.

An arched back or raised tail could indicate pain or illness in a calf.  Look for a fever, diarrhea, umbilical infection, or respiratory disease (pneumonia) in calves that stand this way

An arched back or raised tail could indicate pain or illness in a calf.  Look for a fever, diarrhea, umbilical infection, or respiratory disease (pneumonia) in calves that stand this way

                 No diarrhea, no fever…

A calf may also breath faster due to prior inflammation and damage to the lungs resulting from pneumonia (bovine respiratory disease).   Respiratory disease can have long term impacts on a calf’s health including slowed growth for 6 months after illness, increased risk of death, and even difficulty calving as an adult.  If respiratory disease is a problem in your herd prevention is key. However, for those already affected, providing a low stress environment for calves well they recover is important.  These calves will be more vulnerable to heat stress, and handling stress for several months after initial illness.  Keeping stocking density low and grouping calves by disease history can help you manage these vulnerable animals.

Look for a calf lying with her neck extended, this may indicate discomfort, or challenges breathing

Look for a calf lying with her neck extended, this may indicate discomfort, or challenges breathing


Whether it is due to the environment, health, or just a dream - breathing rate can tell you a lot! Making this observation just one more tool in your calf management tool box.




Keeping Calves Healthy this Winter & Spring

Brr it is cold out there… okay now it’s hot! I mean cold… so this winter has been unpredictable here in Ontario.  The question of should I wear a jacket to work seems to change day to day.  While I am loving not shoveling a whole bunch of snow, it has had some challenges for calves. 

cold calf_opt (2).jpg

Changes in weather can be hard on calves but if we keep in mind their comfort we can keep them healthy and growing.  One of the first things to keep in mind is something called the thermoneutral zone which is the range of temperatures that calves are able to stay comfortable without spending energy.  In human terms it is the temperature range where you are not sweating or shivering!   Calves are small and lack the body fat and giant energy producing rumen that adult cows have, so they are more comfortable at higher temperatures. 

THE 'JUST RIGHT' ZONE aka Thermoneutral zone

A newborn calf that is healthy and dry does not spend energy between 10C (50 F) and 25C (78F), while a one-month old calf does not spend energy between 0 C (32F) and 25C (78F).  If a calf is sick or wet, they are more sensitive to low temperatures and will become cold at much higher temperatures.  Think of huddling under the covers the last time you were sick, or think fondly of getting out of the pool on a warm summer day and wrapping yourself in a towel to stay warm.  The same principle applies to calves.  A warm and dry calf is a calf that will stay healthy.    Does this mean on cold days calves are doomed?  Nope, we just have to make sure we give them the tools to keep warm!

Save energy - Keep them warm

First step? Keep them dry.  This could be by using heat lamps for newborn, the dam can lick the calf dry, there are commercial calf warmers, heat lamps, and deep bedding with straw.  Straw works well because calves can nest into it and it keeps heat in.  Well products like shavings are great for keeping calves dry, since they cannot nest into it.  This means that they will have to spend more energy keeping warm as calves can’t cover up and will have more of their body exposed to the cold.  Straw is basically the calf equivalent of a good winter jacket.  Since straw is expensive and can be hard to maintain I recommend a combination of shavings, straw and a jacket in the winter.  A good shavings base to absorb liquid, straw on top for calves to nestle into with the goal of having the back legs at least partly covered when they lay down, and a calf jacket to keep them warm.  

Then maintain! Make sure the lying area stays dry.  Calves lay down for around 20 hours a day!  So there bedding needs to be dry and warm.  This winter, and most springs, hutches are really hard to manage and lots of bedding will be needed as the wet conditions will mean that the inside of hutches are really likely to be wet and muddy- which will mean sick calves!  And remember, sick calves are more sensitive to cold temperatures and more likely to be chilled.

Careful of wet bedding in hutches when the weather is near freezing and ground is wet and cold

Careful of wet bedding in hutches when the weather is near freezing and ground is wet and cold

Stoke the fire – Keep them fed

The next big challenge – keep them well fed.  If calves do not get enough food they can run out of energy and will have trouble staying warm and keeping their immune system up and running.  Rule of thumb?  Feed Holstein calves 4L of good quality colostrum (stay tuned for more on what good quality is!) within 4 hours to get calves off to a good start.  Then feed calves at 20% of body weight (over 8 liters of milk per day).  Keep in mind that for a calf to maintain health and growth they will typically need to be eating at least 1 kg of calf starter a day and calves will NOT be able to do this for at least the first month of age.   

If you keep calves warm, dry, and well-fed, you are well on your way to raising healthy and happy calves – which will make you, and your pocket book healthy and happy!