What if calves could be more resilient against health challenges?

Written by
Janice Chow

For dairy professionals, ensuring the health and well-being of their milk-producing herd is paramount to the success and sustainability of the farm. Growing evidence demonstrates that investing more attention into the care of a new-born calf benefits its resilience to health challenges, as well as its production potential as a future dairy cow. So it is time to rethink the feeding and nurturing of calves.


Resilience generally refers to one’s ability to “bounce back” and regain good balance in the face of challenges. So calf resilience refers to the young animal’s capacity to adapt to changes in its environment, potential stressors that can include changes in temperature, nutrition, grouping and disease challenges.

While stress due to change is a natural part of development, it is the intensity that makes all the difference – too much stress could hamper a calf’s natural immune system. Calves that are not resilient are more vulnerable to bacterial, parasitic or viral infections, which lead to sickness or even mortality. Even upon recovery, these illnesses can have a huge impact on a calf’s future.

Bayer Animal Health’s Calf Health Program is centered on building resilience across four areas of a young calf’s life: epigenetics, socialization, well-being and biosecurity.


Epigenetics: the first eight weeks of life are important

New research has shown that calves that experience at least one bout of diarrhea will eventually need more time to get pregnant and will ultimately produce less milk. This is due to epigenetics, the discovery that in the first eight weeks of life, genes can be switched on or off based on certain factors such as nutrition, stress and environment.

So when calves are well cared for and fed optimally particularly in the first few months of age, it will positively activate genes and this can help them to develop greater production potential. Good nutrition starts with ensuring the calf receives high-quality colostrum in the first six hours of life. After that, it is good practice to feed a calf 10 percent of its bodyweight divided into at least three times a day.


Socialization: promotes social and physical development in calves

Cows are social animals. Similarly, pre-weaned calves benefit from being housed in pairs or in groups. In fact, calves that are housed socially have been found to have better weight gain both before and after weaning.1 It is also beneficial for cognitive development and to build coping skills for new experiences.2


Well-being: a direct benefit to calf health

Well-being is the basis for good calf health, so pay attention to good feeding, appropriate and clean housing, and positive interactions with humans. Calves that are handled well will be curious, relaxed and will get close to the humans who work with them. Learn more in our blog on six basic principles of dairy cattle well-being.


Biosecurity: defense against infectious diseases

Regardless of system or size of the dairy farm, a focus on biosecurity will directly reduce the risk of infectious disease in calves and the potential impact on their resilience. A good biosecurity strategy takes into consideration internal and external threats, and protocols should address hygiene, including cleaning and disinfectant, as well as pest and rodent control.

Paying more attention to calf care in its early days of life is an investment in the farm. Stronger well-being is good for the calf’s resilience and development; importantly, it also provides a good foundation for the calf to thrive in the future as a healthy and productive dairy cow. Ultimately, this contributes to farm success and sustainability.

This blog is based on Bayer Animal Health’s whitepaper on Calf Resilience: A New Approach for Calf Health.


1 Pena, G. et al. (2016): Effect of housing type on health and performance of pre-weaned calves during summer in Florida. J Dairy Sci. 99:1655–1662.
2 Costa, J.H.C. et al. (2016): Effects of group housing of dairy calves on: behavior, cognition, performance and health. J Dairy Sci. 99:2453–2467.
Written by
Janice Chow