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Calf care from
birth to weaning

The animal health and welfare management
of calves from birth to weaning is of great importance to the dairy sector, as healthy calves lead to healthy cows.

Good calf care is vital, as healthier calves lead to healthier and more productive cows. 

The dairy sector is committed to implementing best practices to ensure high levels of animal health and welfare. Good husbandry practices are an important contributor to animal health and welfare on the farm. Young dairy animals that are cared for appropriately are in a better state to combat their ailments, thus reducing need for antibiotics. At the heart of all these challenges is the overall benefit of keeping calves feeling well. 

IDF promotes the implementation of good animal welfare practices in dairy production at global scale and refers to key standards. To support the global dairy sector, IDF has developed a set of health recommendations regarding the welfare of young dairy animals:

  • Calving areas should have high standards of hygiene, be sheltered, and have appropriate bedding.
  • An appropriate birthing plan should consider issues such as choice of sire; safe birthing facilities; and regular checking of animals to ensure prompt, experienced help is available if needed.
  • Newborn dairy animals must receive adequate colostrum, both quantity and quality.
  • The frequency of inspection of stock will depend on the circumstances and management systems
  • More than one daily inspection is particularly important in the case of animals close to giving birth, newborn, and newly weaned calves.
  • If disbudding is performed, should be done before 2 months of age and follow appropriate birthing and weaning practices.
  • Calves should not be offered for sale until they are sufficiently hardy to be transported. Adequate body weight and dry navel are good indicators.
  • Appropriate transport conditions stipulated in national welfare regulations or codes of practice should be followed. 

The IDF is gathering existing scientific and good management practices addressing animal health and welfare outcomes across a variety of different calf management systems. This will include specific consideration on new calf management systems as well as reducing stress for cow-calf separation. 

Video: IDF and DISARM webinar on ‘Management of calves from birth to weaning’ 

The dairy sector supports animal welfare

The dairy sector is committed to implementing best practices to ensure animal welfare based on scientific evidence and reference standards. The IDF promotes the implementation of good animal welfare practices in dairy production at global scale and refers to key standards.

The IDF is actively contributing to the work on animal welfare of the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

Key elements of healthy calf rearing good practice

Colostrum

Newborn dairy animals must receive adequate colostrum, both quantity and quality. If colostrum is not available, an appropriate commercial colostrum substitute should be provided.

First feeding

First colostrum feeding is preferably as soon as possible or latest within six hours of birth.

Fulfilling the need to suckle

In situations when pre-weaned calves cannot suckle, they should receive liquid feed in a way that fulfils their need to suckle.

Weaning

Pre-weaned calves should not be weaned off liquid feeds until the rumen has developed sufficiently to allow it to accept solid foods. Weaned heifers should have access to balanced solid feed of good quality from an early age to promote good rumen development. Cud feeding may be a good alternative for the development of rumen physiology in weaned replacement heifers.

Feed and water

All feeding equipment used for young animals should be thoroughly cleaned after use. Feeds and grassland/pasture use should be monitored to deliver appropriate quality and amount of feed to growing weaned replacement heifers. Water must always be accessible for pre-weaned calves.

If you want to know more, please see  Bulletin of the IDF N° 498/ 2019: The IDF Guide to Good Animal Welfare in Dairy Production 2.0

This detailed guide is a collaboration with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE). It is intended for use by farmers, organisations, dairy processors, and farmer organisations.

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