The main economic driver of a cow-calf operation is dependent on the number of calves weaned alive. The next two drivers are weight and phenotype. For these reasons, outstanding calf health is a directly correlated variable to calf growth and performance. The following guide will review management strategies that are associated with excellent newborn calf health.

   Sound calf health management begins with the dam, prior to calving. A gestating cow should be fed to meet her requirements for her own maintenance plus the additional nutrients for fetal growth. If these requirements are not met, the fetus will still properly grow, however, the cow sacrifices her own reserves, lowering condition prior to lactation and re-breed. The take home message here is, underfeeding cows/heifers does not result in a smaller calf, but consequently reduces cow performance post-calving.

   A key component to getting a calf off to the right start is to ensure they receive colostrum. Colostrum is the primary source of nutrients for a newborn calf and is only obtained from the first milking after calving. After this initial milking the cow begins to transition to lower levels of colostrum for the next 48-60 hours. True colostrum contains two times as much dry matter and minerals, and five times more protein than whole milk, while also containing various hormones and growth factors required for growth and development.

   Producers should dismiss the thought of knowing all calf health problems, their causes, and the best treatment. Instead, their main goal concerning calf health should be to detect abnormal signs and behavior between a healthy and sick calf. The more proficient a producer is in these areas, the more likely a calf will receive timely and proper treatment, increasing chances of a rapid recovery. In addition, this information can be used to develop calf management protocols and treatment strategies.

   Calf scours is the most lethal ailment in the first 30 days of a calf’s life. While current practices have improved survival rate of calves there is still an economic benefit to take preventative measures rather than treating once the calf is sick. Scours are usually caused by two or more pathogens working together. Severity and duration of scours is dependent on the extent of intestinal destruction, stress level in the environment, and amount and quality of colostrum from dam.

   As previously mentioned, it is most cost-effective to be proactive rather than reactive when it comes to scours. Here are three ways to prevent an outbreak in your herd.

-        Provide a clean environment for baby calves. There are countless ways to improve sanitation such as using the sandhills calving method, maintaining a clean calving environment, and sanitizing treatment equipment between calf uses.

-        Ensuring the calf receives enough colostrum. Failure to do so increases risk of calf health problems.

-        Properly vaccinating cows in last trimester. Vaccinating for E. coli and rotavirus can increase antibodies that she will pass on to her calf through colostrum.

   For more information on newborn calf health or Nebraska Beef Extension, please visit or feel free to reach me at my office (402) 624-8007.