As harvest season wraps up, take time to take inventory of calves

Penn State Extension, Cassie Yost

Farmers find themselves adding more and more items to their already long list of “rainy day” chores

Over the past several weeks, farmers have been busy harvesting crops and getting their fields ready for the winter season. During this time, farmers find themselves adding more and more items to their already long list of “rainy day” chores. However, many items on this list tend to get forgotten and pushed off indefinitely. This year, I urge you to make “taking inventory of my calf program” a top priority on your to-do list. Calves are the future of your dairy operation and knowing the ins and outs of that program is a must not only for the health of your herd but also your wallet.

During recent farm visits revolving around calf and heifer production, I am reminded that key management steps sometimes slip through the cracks. Most often on dairy farms, calf care becomes the job of hired labor or young children that are taking on more responsibility on the farm. However, regardless of who is put in charge of this important task, the farm owner should always have a hand in this area and be cognizant of what is happening on a daily basis. There are many aspects of this process that can not only affect the health of your calves, but also the cost of raising these replacement animals.

Dairy animals are creatures of habit. This is especially true for baby calves. An important point to remember in calf raising programs is that calves love consistency! They want the same amount on milk, the same composition of milk, and they like to be fed at the same time. Major disruptions to these key areas can cause unnecessary stress to calves. And a stressful calf often becomes a sick calf. If there are multiple employees or children feeding calves, make sure that everyone is on the same page and doing the same thing. Implementing standard operating procedures (SOPs) are a great way to get everyone following the same feeding routines. And as a farm owner, check on employees on a regular basis to make sure these procedures are being followed. Farmers utilizing milk replacers in their programs should pay extra attention to how much milk replacer is being used daily to avoid unnecessary wasting, especially of money.

Another key financial aspect in calf raising revolves around starter intake. How much does your starter cost you? How many pounds of starter are your calves consuming daily? How much starter is actually being fed vs consumed? On average, how much starter are your calves consuming until they are weaned? If any of these questions leave you scratching your head, take time to find the answer to these questions on your farm.

Calves should be offered a starter grain beginning at day 3. However, keep in mind that does not mean they should get a full bucket of grain placed in their pen. Calves should be started off slow at a quarter or half pound of grain a day and gradually increased as consumption increases. Be sure to change grain frequently so it does not get stale, wet, or moldy. Grain should stay fresh to encourage intake. Once grain consumption increases, try to keep daily or weekly records on how much those calves are being fed. Feed scoops come in a variety of sizes which make recording feeding amounts easy and can also be a great learning tool for kids to sharpen those math skills. Rumen development is dependent on knowing when calves begin to consume starter and weaning should be dependent on how many pounds calves are consuming, so it only makes logical sense to start recording

this information on a regular basis. Tracking this information can alert you when calves start to fall off feed, typically signaling a sick calf, and can also help determine daily intake, and provide insight into how much starter calves are consuming while they are on milk.

Adding another daily chore can seem bothersome. However, keeping track of milk replacer inventory, daily quarts of milk being fed, and pounds of starter intake all have one thing in common, money. Knowing how much your calf and heifer program is costing you is often a very grey area. Through individual cash flow analyses by the Penn State Dairy Business Team, it was determined in 2019 that the cost of raising replacements ranged from $1266 to $1922 per heifer, with the average producer spending $1854. Knowing these numbers previously discussed can be some initial steps in helping you determine what your heifers are costing your farm. If you would like help with your calf and heifer program or with determining these costs on your farm, contact Cassie Yost at or call 717-263-9226.


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