Organic Dairy Herd Health: Youngstock Management

eOrganic author:

Linda Tikofsky


Adapted with permission from: Mendenhall, K. (ed.) 2009. The organic dairy handbook: a comprehensive guide for the transition and beyond. Northeast Organic Farming Asociation of New York, Inc., Cobleskill, NY. (Available online at:, verified 18 July 2012).


Heifer calves are the future of the herd. Since the greatest risks for sickness and death are during the first eight weeks of life, spending time and attention developing good youngstock health during the first months of life will be a profitable investment for years to come.

Good calf management begins during the dry period of the dam by providing proper nutrition for calf development (particularly supplementing her diet with selenium and vitamin E to enhance immune function) and a clean and comfortable environment for calving. Maternity pens or stalls should be separated from other adult housing areas and cleaned out between calvings in the winter months to reduce the risk of infecting newborn calves with Johne’s disease. In warmer weather, maternity pastures should be large enough so that calving cows have adequate space.

The following are youngstock best management practices.

  • Ensure adequate colostrum intake. This is the single most important step in maintaining neonatal health.
  • Maximize calf's immunity through nutrition.
  • Maintain excellent sanitation to reduce the number of germs the calf encounters.
  • Avoid overcrowding pens. Allow enough space for feeders and waterers so that even the smallest calf has access.
  • Maintain adequate ventilation and moving air.
  • Isolate sick calves to better observe and to prevent disease spread.
  • Delay weaning if calves are unthrifty or ill.
  • Use dedicated youngstock pastures. Do not graze calves on adult pastures.


Ensuring adequate colostrum intake is the single most important step in maintaining neonatal health. Colostrum is the milk produced during the few days prior to and after calving. It is rich in protein, fat, antibodies, vitamins, and minerals, and contains many bio-active substances (lactoferrin and enzymes) that help prevent disease in the newborn. Calves receive very few antibodies while they are in the womb. They rely on antibodies absorbed across the gut from the colostrum during the first day of life. After 24 hours, the intestinal wall no longer permits the absorption of antibodies so it is essential that colostrum intake happen immediately. Vaccinating cows with appropriate vaccines (especially for scours) during the dry period will increase antibodies passed on to the calf.

Calves should receive two to four quarts (depending on breed and size) of good quality colostrum within the first hour of life and again 12 hours later. Nursing the dam is acceptable in a Johne’s free herd; otherwise, colostrum should be fed by bottle or carefully with an esophageal feeder.

There may be times when banking colostrum is appropriate for farms. Second lactation and older animals produce richer colostrum higher in antibodies than first-calf heifers. If a herd is Johne’s positive, it is a good idea to freeze colostrum from test-negative cows to feed to the calves from Johne’s positive dams.

Directions for Banking Colostrum

  1. Freeze colostrum from Johne’s negative second lactation and older cows in gallon-size resealable plastic bags. They can then be placed flat with wax paper between bags in an ordinary freezer and stored for up to six months.
  2. Thaw colostrum slowly in warm water (do NOT microwave).
  3.  Stir before feeding and feed in a sanitized bottle or esophageal feeder.


Calf housing varies with farmer preference and the level of disease on an individual farm. Regardless of the option chosen, all calves older than six months must have access to the outdoors. The advantages and disadvantages of various housing options are listed in Table 1.

Table 1. Advantages and disadvantages of calf housing options.
Type of Housing
Advantages Disadvantages
Individual hutches Completely separates calves and spread of disease.
Can be disinfected after use.
Easily moved and modified.
Worker discomfort feeding calves during winter months or severe weather.
No socialization among calves.
Greenhouse with individual pens Worker comfort.
Can alter ventilation in greenhouse according to weather.
May increase risk for spread of disease if pens are close together.
Existing barn with individual pens Worker comfort.
Less expensive.
Often reduced ventilation.
Difficult to clean or maintain.
Tied in lactating barn Low cost.
Ease of care.
Risk of disease spread.
Difficult to clean and sanitize.
Restricted movement for calves.
Group pens Reduced cost.
Inter-calf socialization.
Risk for disease spread.
Difficult to observe individual animals (manure, appetite, urine).
Pastured with dam Natural nutrition.
Access to pasture, ventilation, and sunlight.
Natural socialization.
Potential spread of Johne’s and other diseases.
Spread of contagious mastitis.
Difficult to observe individual animals (manure, appetite, urine).


Nutrition programs for calves vary among organic farms, but the common denominator among all of them is fresh, whole milk. Although some farms feed low-quality milk (high somatic cell count or abnormal milk) to calves, whole milk fit for human consumption is preferred. The first eight weeks of a calf’s life are important and it should be fed high-quality feed to boost its immune system.

Calf Nutrition Best Management Practices

  • Calves should be fed milk equivalent to 8% to 10% of body weight per day. (e.g., an 80 lb. calf should receive 6–8 lbs. of milk or about a gallon a day, divided into two to three feedings.
  • There are many delivery systems for milk (bottles, buckets, mob feeders). All equipment should be washed, sanitized, and allowed to dry thoroughly after each use.
  • Calves should have access to fresh, clean water at all times. Amounts will vary with grain and hay intake, recommended amounts are two to five gallons per day.
  • Good quality calf starter, dry hay, and pasture can be introduced free choice after the first week.
  • The most common weaning age is eight weeks, but if parasites or scours are an issue, milk can be fed longer.
  • Weaning is stressful, so do it gradually when calves are eating enough starter, quality hay, or pasture. Do not wean when calves are adjusting to other stresses (housing changes or dehorning).
  • Some farms raise calves in groups of two to three on nurse cows, which is quite efficient both for growth and labor. Nurse cow should be test-negative for Johne’s disease.
  • Avoid feeding milk with contagious mastitis pathogens (Staphylococcus aureus, Streptococcus agalactiae, and Mycoplasma) if calves are group housed. Group housed calves may cross-suckle, spreading these organisms among each other which can result in first-calf heifers freshening with contagious mastitis.

Preventive Healthcare for Calves

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, especially when raising youngstock. Having simple best management practices in place and protocols for workers to follow will help ensure that all calves get optimal treatment every time. Table 2 lists basic calf health preventive practices appropriate for all farms

Table 2. Routine preventive healthcare practices for calf management.
Practice Age Comments
Navel disinfection Birth Navel should be dipped in tincture of iodine (2–7%) to disinfect and help seal umbilical cord.
Animal identification Birth Especially important for herds with multiple calvings in a week.Allows you to begin your animal health recordkeeping easily and early.
Dehorning 2-3 months Multiple methods available (mechanical gougers or electric/butane iron). Local anesthesia with lidocaine or procaine is strongly recommended. During warmer months, an approved fly repellant should be used on area to prevent fly strike.
Extra teats 2-3 months Remove at time of dehorning.
Vaccinations 4-6 months and at breeding Need and type of vaccinations will vary by farm.
Vaccines to consider:
IBR (infectious bovine rhinotracheitis).
BVD (bovine viral diarrhea, Type I and Type II).
BRSV (bovine respiratory synctitial virus).
Pinkeye (Moraxella bovis).
Brucella vaccination (4–8 months).
Ventilation Always To check the barn ventilation, sit on the floor where the calves’ heads are and check the air quality. It may seem fine six feet above the ground, but barn walls and pen dividers can make it quite stale at calf level.

An excellent, though conventional, source of calf management information, written by Dr. Sam Leadley, is available at: Information on management, hygiene, and calfhood issues are of benefit to organic farmers.

Scours (Neonatal Diarrhea)

Scours are one of the most common health problems affecting calves on any dairy (roughly 50% of calf deaths are due to scours). However, good management can go a long way in reducing the number of cases per year and the severity of the disease. As always, if a farm is experiencing an outbreak of scours, the question to ask is “What is wrong with management?” not “What should I treat it with?” Table 3 lists basic causes of scours in calves, methods of diagnosis, and specific management recommendations.

Table 3. Scours management: common causes (agents), symptoms, and management comments.
Agent and Source Age Affected Symptoms Method of Diagnosis Comments
Escherichia coli
“white scours”
First 1-2 weeks Severe diarrhea, fever, dehydration, death Fecal culture Dry cow vaccination; calve in clean dry area
(environment: adult cattle, rodents, birds)
Any age, but usually more than 10 days Watery diarrhea ± blood, loss of appetite, high fever, membrane like substances in feces, death Fecal culture Salmonella DT–104 is a major human health hazard
Clostridium perfringens A, C, & D
(soil and intestinal flora, overfeeding, stress, hot weather)
Usually less than 10 days Painful abdomen, bloating, acute death without symptoms Culture gut loops of dead calves Vaccination
Corona and Rota virus
(adult cattle)
10-14 days Watery diarrhea, usually no fever, depression, drooling, dehydration Fresh colon from necropsied calf Can be complicated by E. coli infection
Bovine Viral
Diarrhea (BVD)
(infected cattle)
Any age Long-term diarrhea, fever, rapid breathing, may have sores in mouth and nose Blood test, fresh colon, intestinal lymph node, ear notch Vaccination
7-21 days Watery diarrhea, abdominal pain, no fever Fecal flotation Can spread to humans
>21 days; commonly at weaning Watery diarrhea ± blood, dehydration Fecal flotation Associated with unclean environment, overcrowding, and stress
Intestinal parasites
2-3 months or older Diarrhea, poor growth, pot-bellies, poor hair coat, pale gums (from anemia) Fecal flotation Associated with unclean environment, overcrowding

Scours Management and Treatment Practices

  • Oral electrolytes: Dehydration is the number one reason calves with scours die. Electrolyte solutions are available commercially or you can make them at home. Provide them at the first signs of scours. If the calf will drink, electrolytes can be fed in buckets or bottles. If the calf will not drink, administer the electrolytes with an esophageal feeder. Feed one pint per 10 pounds three to four times a day between milk feedings.
  • Probiotics: These products contain "good" bacteria (Lactobacillus, etc.) that compete with the scours bacteria in the gut. They can be fed preventively or as a part of a treatment regimen for scouring calves. Review these products with your certifier first to ensure there are no GMOs and that all ingredients are allowed.
  • Nutrition: Calves need nutrients to help them fight disease and to recover. Withholding milk is not recommended.
  • Mannan-oligosaccharides: These are complex sugars from yeast cell walls. "Bad" bacteria, such as E. coli, bind to these yeast sugars, which travel through the intestinal track and out into the manure. Because the “bad” bacteria are bound to the mannan-oligosaccharides, they cannot attach to the gut wall and cause disease. These products can be fed preventively or as part of treatment regimen.
  • ImmunoboostTM: See the section on Immune Stimulants in Alternative and Complementary Treatment and Medicines.
  • Passive antibodies: See the section on Immune Stimulants in Alternative and Complementary Treatment and Medicines.
  • Dewormers: Document best management practices and natural dewormers used. The only allowed conventional dewormers for organic cattle are fenbendazole, ivermectin, and moxidectin but these products can only be used on an emergency basis after documented alternatives have failed and after a veterinarian has checked the calves’ manure samples and determined that worms (nematodes) are the problem for the farm. There is a 90-day mandatory milk withhold for organic animals treated with these dewormers, and treated animals can never be used as organic slaughter stock. Contact your certifier before treating.

Alternative Therapies for Scours

The following therapies may not be scientifically evaluated or appropriate for all farms. Make sure you consult the References and Citations section at the end of this article for specific instructions.

  • Putting the calf back on the dam to nurse. Best for mild scours in a Johne's-free herd.
  • Ferrous iron and tannin supplements.
  • Black walnut hulls and/or wormwood: both have been used as dewormers in folk medicine.
  • Slippery elm bark powder.
  • Aloe vera/garlic tincture.
  • Crushed garlic.
  • Homeopathy, determined by calf's presentation and symptoms.
  • Chamomile or fennel teas.
  • Organic yogurt.

Pneumonia and Respiratory Diseases in Calves

Pneumonia is any infection of the lungs. Signs are fever, coughing, and labored breathing. After scours, it is the second cause of death in heifers and calves. All the best management practices for scours also apply for the prevention and management of respiratory disease.

Pneumonia may be caused by virus, bacteria, or mechanical damage. Weaning, dehorning, transporting, and mixing calves from different farms are stressful events that may trigger episodes of respiratory disease. Pneumonia is also associated with changes in weather, particularly in poorly ventilated calf barns. Good ventilation is essential. Table 4 lists the common causes of respiratory disease in calves, symptoms, and good management practices.

Table 4. Respiratory disease management: common causes (agents), symptoms, and management comments.
Agent and Source Symptoms Comments
Bovine Respiratory Syncitial Virus (BRSV)
Infection Bovine Rhinotracheitis (IBR)
Parainfluenza Type 3
(Diseased cattle or healthy carriers)
Coughing, trouble breathing, fever, eye and nose discharge, death Best prevented through good management, nutrition, and vaccination
Pasteurella species
(repiratory tract of normal animals)
Depression, nasal discharge, high fevers (107°F), coughing Often follows a viral respiratory disease
Hemophilus species
(respiratory and reproductive tracts)
Difficulty swallowing, bawling, labored breathing Prevent with good management, vaccination
Mycoplasma species
(respiratory tract, infected milk)
Mild to severe pneumonia, head tilt or ear infections, eye infections, swollen joints DO NOT feed milk from Mycoplasma-positive cows, or pasteurize milk
Aspiration pneumonia
(poor technique with esophageal feeder, careless drenching)
Cough, fever, sudden death Care during feeding and drenching

Respiratory Disease Management and Treatment Practices

  • Improve ventilation.
  • Increase hydration.
  • Vaccinate with one of the nasal vaccines early in the outbreak.
  • Administer passive antibodies for Pasteurella, ImmunoboostTM, Vitamin B and C injections.
  • Administer anti-inflammatories (aspirin) to reduce fever and prevent lung damage.
  • Consider antibiotics. In cases where the calf is not responding to the above treatments, antibiotics must be given to prevent suffering. Animals treated with antibiotics must be removed from organic production.

Alternative Therapies for Respiratory Disease

The following therapies may not be scientifically evaluated or appropriate for all farms. Make sure you consult the References and Citations section at the end of this article for specific instructions.

  • Herbal antibiotic tinctures.
  • Garlic.
  • Homeopathy, determined by calf's presentation and symptoms.
  • Essential oils (eucalyptus).

Also in This Series

This article is part of a series discussing organic dairy herd health. For more information, see the following articles.

References and Citations


Published February 7, 2013

This is an eOrganic article and was reviewed for compliance with National Organic Program regulations by members of the eOrganic community. Always check with your organic certification agency before adopting new practices or using new materials. For more information, refer to eOrganic's articles on organic certification.