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Dairy Focus: Growing Calves is Like a Marathon

J.W. Schroeder, NDSU Extension dairy specialist J.W. Schroeder, NDSU Extension dairy specialist
To reduce heat stress, provide calves with adequate shade and ventilation in their hutches, keep their hutches clean and make sure they have enough water to drink. To reduce heat stress, provide calves with adequate shade and ventilation in their hutches, keep their hutches clean and make sure they have enough water to drink.
Warm weather changes calf management.

By J.W. Schroeder, Dairy Specialist

NDSU Extension Service

Watching family and friends participate in the Fargo marathon, I eventually was reminded of how raising calves may be like a marathon as our weather changes to summer conditions.

Saturday seemed like an ideal day, especially for us spectators. We were anticipating being cold and wet with the pending weather report, but it was not that way at all. Rather, the cloudy skies tempered the effect of the sun, yet held their precipitation. We dodged the bullet. This is great; just a little humid. Or was it?

As the runners of the various races entered the final leg, what was becoming painfully obvious was that the conditions weren’t so great for them. With the humid air and temperate temperatures, the environment was stressful. In fact, the conditions were so stressful that, at one point, all the stations in the hospital area were full with disoriented, dehydrated, vomiting runners. Heat and humidity were not so great after all.

So what does this have to do with calves? Warm weather changes calf management. Born healthy and on their way, we sometimes forget that even though calves have little to do that would cause exhaustion, they may be as vulnerable as a marathon runner when out in the elements.

Heat stress can be a problem for calves because they dissipate heat by panting, which causes them to lose valuable hydration. We need to manage calves to reduce overheating and, at the same time, improve water management. Here are some summertime tips from the Dairy Calf and Heifer Association gold standards on housing environment for calves:

  • Housing is critical. Use shade cloths over rows of calf hutches and prop up the back end of the hutch to facilitate air movement for calves housed indoors. Open windows, lower side curtains and consider fans.
  • Remove bedding more frequently. Bedding retains heat if excessively soiled with urine and manure.
  • Water management is crucial. Make sure water buckets are large enough so they don't run dry during a 24-hour period. Locate buckets so calves can't spill starter grain into them. Don't expose buckets to direct sunlight because sunlight overheats water and encourages algae growth.
  • Sanitation is vital. Dump water buckets daily to maintain freshness. Wipe buckets with a diluted chlorinated solution at least once a week to reduce algae growth.
  • Don't use the same bucket for milk and water. Milk remaining in the bucket allows bacteria to grow and may encourage organisms responsible for abomasal bloat or other diseases.
  • Consider more liberal use of electrolyte solutions. In warm weather, calves are more prone to dehydration. Scouring calves should receive oral electrolyte solutions liberally, particularly during midday. Administer electrolytes by bottle early in the course of diarrhea because solution absorption likely will be better than if it’s given by a tube.
  • Keep calf starter fresh. Add as much as the calves will eat each day, and feed refused starter grain to older heifers.

The future of the herd resides in the genetics and management put forth in your dairy heifers. Don’t just be a spectator. Actively plan for their well-being, and check on them often to avoid having to triage a bunch of heat-exhausted calves.

NDSU Agriculture Communication - May 25, 2011

Source:J.W. Schroeder, (701) 231-7663,
Editor:Ellen Crawford, (701) 231-5391,
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