Rearing pre-weaned beef cross calves sourced from a dairy farm is a practice that is starting to grow. However, like everything in life, it comes with its challenges.

The first challenge for anyone rearing these dairy-beef cross calves is to minimise introducing new diseases onto their farm. In an ideal situation, try to keep the number of dairy farms from which calves are being sourced to a minimum.

In reality, this is not always possible due to calf availability from selected farms and requirements to fill a pen/shed.

Therefore, think about the farms you are directly sourcing the calves from. Have that conversation with the farmer about the health status of their herd. Find out if the calves have been tissue-tagged for BVD.

Have the cows been vaccinated and if so, what for?

It has been widely publicised that colostrum is the key to a successful start in life and future productivity – ‘liquid gold’. Ask the dairy farmer about their colostrum management, especially towards the dairy-beef cross calves. In some situations, but not all, better quality colostrum is reserved for the dairy heifer calves that are destined to be replacements for the dairy herd over a beef cross calf born at the same time.

The logic behind such a decision is justifiable as the dairy heifer calf is most likely to be staying on the farm for many years to become part of the ‘bread and butter’ of the dairy business whereas the beef cross calf will be moved off, in most cases, within a short period of time. The dairy beef cross calf, despite its short duration on the farm of birth, still deserves the best possible start in life and should always receive colostrum and colostrum of adequate quality.

There has been various research carried out regarding the bodyweight of calves and disease. What this research demonstrated was that bodyweight had an important influence on future morbidity and mortality risk of calves as well as growth.

Heavier calves on arrival at the farm/rearing unit had a reduced risk of respiratory disease, diarrhoea, and mortality within the first three weeks of arriving. While it is difficult to determine the ideal threshold for body weight at arrival, it could be speculated that it needs to be greater than 50kg.

The next challenge occurs when you get the calves back to the farm/rearing unit. Regardless of where the calves are coming from (direct from the source, through auction mart, etc), the transportation of them to their new destination is a stressor on the young animal.

It would be worthwhile monitoring calves in the first two or three days upon arrival, particularly those that require treatment or have died, to look for any trends and thoughts about future purchasing decisions.

Calves that have not been able to handle the stress of transportation run the risk of not being able to thrive in their new environment. So, how do you manage the calves when they arrive? Although there is no known evidence-based guidance or evidence to suggest otherwise, a general rule of thumb would be to try to keep calves from the same source, where possible, together in the same pen to try to minimise the disease risk to themselves and other calves.

Some of the integrated dairy beef calf supply chains will have written health protocols to follow for when the calves arrive at the farm/rearing unit. However, if purchasing calves yourself through an auction mart or directly from the dairy farm, have a conversation with your vet to discuss implementing a vaccination programme/strategy for these calves once they arrive at your farm.

It is inevitable that calves coming from multiple sources onto one single unit will each bring their own ‘resistance’ to diseases and at the same time be exposed to others to which they are completely naïve to.

Some of the practical challenges towards rearing these pre-weaned beef cross dairy calves lie with having adequate housing. The unknown environment of the housing itself can pose yet another stressor on

these young animals. Therefore, try to ensure that the calves are supplied with a plentiful amount of dry bedding in a well-ventilated, draught-free environment. In the wrong circumstances, these factors are well known to pre-dispose calves to disease.

Despite there being many challenges to overcome to successfully rear dairy beef cross calves, don’t let one of those challenges be you being afraid to ask questions and seek advice.