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Calf data – the missing puzzle piece in cow performance?

Taliah Danzinger

We rely on cow data to make decisions every day. But what about calf and heifer data? Too often we only detect underperforming animals once they enter the milking string. Why is one cow falling behind her peers? Without data to inform us, we’re left guessing the reason.

Using herd management software to record calf and heifer data – starting at birth – can help uncover animal performance issues at all life stages, identify trends and suggest management changes.

Start recording early

Having key calf and heifer datapoints at your fingertips from the start of a calf’s life helps troubleshoot performance issues. For example, suppose you’ve recorded successful passive transfer, a low prevalence of calfhood diseases and that weaning weights are on target. You’ve now narrowed the troubleshooting window to post-weaning and pre-breeding. Once you uncover the problem source, you can adapt your calf management protocols to avoid similar scenarios in the future.

Track key events

If you’re not recording data on your calves now, start by tracking these three critical datapoints:

Calfhood diseases: Scours and pneumonia are the most common diseases facing calves. Tracking these events can help assess contributing factors, such as management, environment or nutrition. Having data helps you step back to assess the full impact. How long has the problem been going on? What do you see as a result – small calves or death loss? It can also help reveal how much time, resources and money you’re spending to treat an animal. Long term, you can use that data to measure the impact on key management areas like milk production and reproduction.

Serum total protein: Running a serum total protein analysis is like a report card for calf management – it evaluates the passive transfer of immunoglobulins in calves. If you’re having an issue with your pre-weaned calves, it helps narrow down the possible contributors. For example, if you have a failure of passive transfer and you’re testing colostrum quality using a Brix refractometer, it rules out colostrum quality as an issue. Is colostrum feeding delayed? Are you feeding enough? Does the colostrum or feeding equipment have a high bacterial count? Could the dam or calf be experiencing heat or cold stress? Arming yourself with serum total protein data helps inform colostrum management issues.

Weight: Recording weight measurements at birth, weaning, breeding and calving helps ensure you’re hitting growth goals. Birthweight data helps confirm calves have reached their desired weaning weight. Weight data also helps you manage your reproduction program. Heifers should be 55% of their mature weight at breeding and 85% of their mature weight at calving.

Consistent review of birth and weaning weights helps you intervene before a weaning-weight problem becomes a breeding-weight problem. Managing this data helps catch animals that have deviated from the target and allows you to make management changes. A prime example is altering the age at first breeding for heifers before they calve in too small and don’t meet production goals due to outdated protocols.

Set up events properly

Defining disease events and training employees on how to recognize them is key to correct identification, treatment and recordkeeping. First, establish how you’re going to define the event. In the case of scours, is it runny manure? Is it going off milk? Or is it having a temperature?

Ensure that your treatment protocols are detailed in your herd management software. Is it a scours event that requires an electrolyte treatment or an alternative treatment? Predefining these treatment plans based on calf symptoms helps ensure employees provide the right treatment and record it.

Setting up protocols correctly also prevents muddy data. For example, take a calf with a scours event that receives three electrolyte treatments – it’s important the calf gets entered as having a scours event once with treatment tasks. You don’t want to enter her as having three scours events. Entering it as a single event makes a big difference in how the data is pulled into reports.

Follow the path to success

Your herd management software setup can make or break the data recording process. When set up correctly, it can pay back dividends in troubleshooting cow performance issues. Consider these tips for success:

  • Set up key performance indicators (KPIs) so you know what you’re looking for when reviewing data. Define your herd’s KPIs before starting the data entry process – look to the Dairy Calf and Heifer Association Gold Standards for help.

  • Get your team on the same page. Determine your threshold for common calf and heifer diseases. Clarify how you’ll record each event and treatment protocols.

  • Make sure calf data is entered routinely. Implement a process to double-check data entry for consistency.

  • Consider using the mobile application of your herd management software for convenient, on-the-go recording.

  • Use your software’s customer support when questions arise.

  • Involve your calf management team, veterinarian, nutritionist and other trusted advisers in the data review process for support and accountability.

Avoid the guessing game – stay ahead of management challenges by proactively recording calf and heifer data in your herd management software. Contact your software’s customer support team to ensure you’re properly entering data and setting up protocols. end mark


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