December 14, 2019

Getting Calves Off to a Healthy Start

Male dairy calves face a unique set of challenges in their transition from birth on the dairy farm, through shipment, and arrival at veal facilities. Because this transition can cause stress, calves can develop illness within the first few weeks at their new facility. To combat this, some veal producers have relied on providing in-feed antimicrobials to every calf upon entry to their farms. While these practices have helped maintain calf health in the past, there is increasing concern about the development of antimicrobial resistance. The development of resistance means the drugs we’re used to using may no longer be effective for the conditions we’re trying to treat. It is therefore important for producers to adopt management strategies that promote animal health.

Prudent use of antimicrobials is necessary to preserve their ability to treat disease and our right to continue using them for the prevention and control of disease in livestock production. We all have a role to play.

Much of the disease that calves endure upon arrival can be reduced by ensuring only healthy calves are being purchased. Some indicators of calf health that should be evaluated prior to purchase include:

  • Body weight
  • Level of dehydration
  • The presence of umbilical or navel infections
  • Presence of diarrhea


Body Weight

Research has shown that heavier calves are less likely to develop disease.

When possible, purchase calves that are > 45 kg or 100 lbs. These calves could be older, received high quality nutrition early in life, or were less likely to have been ill early in life – this allows them to be better withstand the rigours of transport.

Larger calves also have stronger immune systems and can withstand disease challenges better than smaller calves.



Young male dairy calves can lose fluids rapidly, particularly during transport. A 2018 study conducted by Dr. Dave Renaud at the University of Guelph found that 46% of calves arriving at veal facilities are dehydrated. Dehydrated calves are more prone to growth issues and  developing serious illness within the first few weeks at their new facility. Dehydration should be assessed before purchase by performing a skin tent test, where the skin is pinched to measure how long it takes to return to normal (ideally less than 2 sec) and measuring eyeball recession or sunkenness. Preventing or treating dehydration early is critical to improve the health status of calves entering your farm. 

Performing a skin tent test.


Umbilical Infections

Producers can often recognize early signs of respiratory disease and diarrhea, but an important and often overlooked parameter of calf health is the umbilicus. Umbilical (or navel) infections can cause significant disease and death in calves. According to Dr. Renaud, it has been found that 27% of calves in Ontario arrive at veal facilities with umbilical infections. This leads to decreased health, welfare, and profitability. Infections can be identified by feeling the umbilical stalk and noting any heat, pain, moisture, and/or stalk thickness > 2 cm.

Palpating the navel to identify signs of infection.



Calves arriving at veal facilities with diarrhea are more likely to die before they reach market age. These calves will expose other animals to a range of pathogens. Preventing the entry of sick calves will reduce the number of treatments in calves that arrive with disease, and will in turn reduce the number of susceptible animals that are exposed at your facility.


Source Farms

It is important for veal producers to purchase calves from reputable and well-managed dairy farms whenever possible. These calves will have received sufficient colostrum to establish immunity, and nutrition to build energy reserves early in life to set them up for success during their transition to veal production. 

While it will not be possible to completely eliminate disease and antimicrobial use in veal operations, active and deliberate selection of calves, and reducing the number of high-risk animals entering can significantly reduce the number of animals that require treatment. Evaluating body weight, hydration, umbilicus, and diarrhea will help to reduce reliance on antimicrobials in milk, milk replacer and feed for veal calves.

Visit for more veal-specific tips to ensuring antimicrobial stewardship and animal health.

The Farmed Animal Antimicrobial Stewardship Initiative (FAAST) aims to tackle resistance head on through education, collaboration, and engagement across the value chain. The mission is to help Ontario veterinarians, producers, and their representative organizations improve antimicrobial stewardship. Visit the FAAST website at or contact at This project is funded in part through the Canadian Agricultural Partnership, a federal-provincial-territorial initiative.

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