Charles Sturt University
Graham Centre for Agricultural Innovation

Graham Centre research : Improving the health of dairy calves

Research from the Graham Centre for Agricultural Innovation has identified opportunities to improve the health and productivity of Australian dairy calves.

photo of Dr Angel Abuelo The research findings are based on a survey of more than one hundred dairy farmers and the analysis of colostrum, blood and faecal samples collected from 23 farms.

Research leader, Dr Angel Abuelo – now based at Michigan State University, said colostrum management is a key factor that can be improved in Australian dairy production systems.

“Colostrum is the milky fluid produced by cows soon after giving birth and it plays a key role in developing a newborn calf's immune system,” Dr Abuelo said.

“Less than 20 per cent of colostrum samples collected in this study met the standards of immunoglobulin content and microbiological quality.

“This suggests that a large number of calves are at risk of receiving poor quality colostrum making them more susceptible to illness.

“Practices such as the prompt refrigeration of colostrum and thorough disinfection of the calf feeding apparatus before use have been recommended to reduce bacterial contamination. The timely separation of calves from dams is also important in improving the immunity and health of dairy calves.”

The research also identified a need for better calf feeding hygiene to prevent the spread of disease and more judicious use of antimicrobials to treat neonatal calf diarrhoea.

Dr Abuelo said there’s also scope for veterinarians to become more involved in calf health programs in Australian dairy farms.

“The rates of calf illness and mortality on several of the farms studied were higher than industry targets. But the research indicates these targets are achievable and we believe that vets and farm advisors have a key role to play in increasing awareness of recommended practices for calf management and feeding.

“More research is also needed to investigate the factors that influence a farmer’s decision to adopt these practices,” Dr Abuelo said.

The research ‘An investigation of dairy calf management practices, colostrum quality, failure of transfer of passive immunity, and occurrence of enteropathogens among Australian dairy farms’ by Dr Abuelo, NSW Department of Primary Industries dairy development officer Mr Peter Havrlant, Graham Centre Acting Director Associate Professor Marta Hernandez-Jover, and Charles Sturt University Honours Student Natalie Wood is published in the Journal of Dairy Science


Media Note: Dr Angel Abuelo is based at Michigan State University in the United States, to arrange interviews contact Graham Centre communications officer Ms Emily Malone on 0439 552 385 or email