Like many other dairy producers, standard protocol for us is giving our cows a 60-day dry period. Granted, there may be exceptions if a cow is confirmed bred and has a high number of days in milk and is low in milk production. Generally speaking, though, this 60-day period holds true for most of our cows. At that point, they are vaccinated and treated with a dry cow treatment of choice, based on their somatic cell history, and put into the dry cow pen. More often than not, once in the dry cow pen, that individual is pretty low maintenance until she gets ready to calve. Although not very common, there is an exception.

Holler julianne
Dairy Producer / Freelance Writer
Julianne Holler is a freelance writer in Sharpsville, Pennsylvania.

Just a little over a year ago, I dried my Red & White Holstein off at the beginning of December and figured we would be good to go until she was due to calve in early February, based off her being a low-maintenance cow that had never had any health concerns in her history. That was until two days before Christmas; just a little over two weeks since dry-off, she seemed “off” to me. I visually noticed that she didn’t look as energetic as normal, her eyes appeared dull and she had some faint red blood mixed in the discharge on her tail. After a call to our veterinarian that led to a more elaborate physical exam and palpation, it was determined that she was trying to calve, and we ended up pulling the calf.

A Red & White heifer calf was delivered and, much to our surprise, was alive and very vocal. After letting the cow lick off and stimulate the calf, we moved said calf into the utility room of the barn where she was placed in a clean, dry water tub with fresh bedding and a heat lamp. Being almost six weeks early, her hair was very short, so we had to do as much as possible to keep her body temperature regulated in the midst of a northeast Ohio cold front, while making sure to not get her too warm.

Over time, as she grew and hit feeding milestones we had set for her, we did wean her off of the heat lamp and into more normal temperatures that the other calves were exposed to. This was a very tedious and sensitive transition as we constantly had to be watching the weather and adjusting airflow based on that.

The cow never missed a beat and came right back into the milking string as if nothing abnormal had happened. Based on a couple of past experiences with newborn calves, we knew that it would be touch-and-go for a while with the survival rate of the calf not being really high. We were determined to try our best and put in extra effort to give this calf the best chance of survival possible. Although every farm might have their own premature calf protocol, I will share ours that successfully worked as Miracle is now over a year old and thriving with her herdmates.


Foremost, small feedings in short intervals, I believe, is the key to success with raising these small calves. Not only was a normal-sized calf bottle and nipple way too big for the calf, but even half the amount of a normal feeding was too much. We used a goat bottle with a small nipple and fed half of that every three to four hours. Ninety-five percent of the time, she would finish that specific amount of milk. On occasion she would not, and that would always raise a small concern that she wasn’t processing and digesting like she should be, but with patience and consistency, we eventually worked our way up to a whole bottle of milk at that size at less frequent intervals, and then we upgraded to a normal calf bottle. Our calves are typically on milk for 60 days before weaning, but we did leave her on milk for 120 days, so double the time of a normal calf.

I would say that the small, frequent feedings paired with a sanitary area isolated from the other calves in a temperature-controlled environment helped her succeed. In addition, we did put her on Dexamethasone short-term for lung development, but we did not keep her on this for a long period of time as we did not want her immune system to become suppressed.

At around the one-month mark, she did pick up some sort of respiratory infection that also could’ve just been more prevalent as her lungs were not as developed as well as a normal calf of that age. During this time, she did not go off milk, but she did develop a slightly elevated temperature and cough. We put her on a regimen of vitamin B to keep her appetite strong, as well as a low dose of Banamine for the fever, and Excenel. This treatment protocol cleared up her infection within a short amount of time, and we had no other issues with her health after that.

Although this specific protocol worked for us, I do recommend consulting with your veterinarian to come up with the best treatment plan specific to your case.

All in all, from a tiny calf with a moderate chance of survival to a tall, strong yearling, this calf was nothing short of a Christmas Miracle.