Sam Leadley, PhD, Attica Veterinary Associates, Attica, N.Y., offers these tips to help your dairy clients expect the unexpected and monitor trends.

Repeatable events

Many of our “unexpected” events actually happen repeatedly. The “unexpected” aspect is the unpredictability of exactly when they will happen. It may be possible to predict with the range of a week, month or season of year that an event will occur. For example, having a down or weak calf (or calves) is a common calf-care event. While sometimes these down-calf events seem to go in cycles, other times they just happen. Treatments are usually concentrated in the times shortly after a feeding.

Another example is spraying for flies. The calf operation on a dairy might be sprayed after the contractor finishes spraying production-cow barns, which are sprayed irregularly based on “fly-count” numbers. It’s hard to predict when the spray crew would show up. This causes employees to have to pull out all the feeding equipment, spray for flies, then put all the buckets and feeders back. Spraying intervals could be anywhere from three to five weeks, but only in fly season.

Weather events often caused peak labor demands. Summer thunderstorms often flooded grain feeders. Winter storms can dump snow into feeders. They occur every year but predicting just which week seems impossible.

Peaks in calving are always going to happen. While pregnancy data can tell us about when calves are going to be born they are unreliable in predicting daily calvings. We all have lived through a slump for a couple of days followed by an outrageous number the next day.

It may not be worthwhile to actually keep a written log of these events. However, having a heightened awareness of them will imprint them in our memory.

Thinking ahead

Most calf enterprises are run on a “labor-tight” basis. If you need 1.2 persons to do the job there may be only one person to get the work done. This means there is no “safety margin” built into the system to cover fluctuations in the work load  —  everyone is already up to or over 100%.

This means when an “unexpected” event occurs, usually other work must be postponed which means that various jobs must be assigned priorities for completion. Some work has to be done everyday at approximately the same time  —  for example, feeding milk to pre-weaned calves. Other work, while required daily, can be done as labor is available. Vaccinating, dehorning and measuring calves might be scheduled for weekly completion. But, given “unexpected” events the day of the week for the job might be changed. For example, in the case of extremely cold or hot weather Leadley often holds off vaccinating until a break in the weather. Flexibility is one key in adapting to unanticipated events. You must be able to make needed shifts on one day while remembering to do postponed jobs the following day or week. Lendley found he had to schedule regular jobs for daily, weekly and monthly completion. 

Recognize the need for help

If we are going to maintain standards of good quality care there are times when we have to admit that working harder and longer is not going to get us out of crisis mode. It helps a great deal to have anticipated the eventual need for help. Involving persons who usually do not work in calf care in cross-training can have huge benefits. This gives you a “backup” person who can warm colostrum, tube a calf, give injections or properly mix milk replacer.

This information was excerpted from the August 2008 Calving Ease e-newsletter. For more information, visit