Breeding for calf vitality under the microscope

Dec 7, 2023

CALF health records from more than 50 Australian dairy farms are helping researchers better understand the genetics that contribute to healthy young stock.

And this information could be used to build the nation’s first Australian Breeding Value (ABV) for Calf Health – to provide dairy farmers with an opportunity to select genetics to increase the chances of breeding an alive calf that thrives.

LaTrobe University PhD student and DataGene team member, Michelle Axford, has led this work for the past two years and continues to work alongside farmers and researchers to validate the early-stage or “research” ABVs to ensure they add value to farmers’ breeding programs.

“First thing is first, we are still testing to make sure the ABVs are effective and if the research ABVs pass the test then farmers could expect to see calf ABVs in the usual places that they find ABVs,” she said.

 “But part of the research work is asking for dairy farmer feedback to determine how the ABV could be expressed – for example a single calf health trait or many individual traits? What’s the economic value of each trait? The value of a healthy calf?”

Terang, Victoria dairy farmer, Tori Tuckett, collected information on each calf born on her 750-cow dairy farm to assist the project develop a breeding value for calf vitality.

An ABV is an estimate of a heifer, cow, bull – or in this case – a calf’s’ genetic merit for a particular trait.

Terang, Victoria dairy farmer, Tori Tuckett, collected information on each calf born on her 750-cow dairy farm to assist the project.

She already recorded extensive calving and calf health information, such as individual’s colostrum intake and if the cow had any calving issues but added a measure of “vitality” to her spreadsheet to aid the project.

Vitality was scored based on the calf’s willingness to drink, energy, temperament, and attitude.

Most calf information was added to the dairy farm’s management software to ensure it remained with the animal throughout its’ life and assist with management decisions.

Tori said the project was good news for farmers as it would build the understanding the role genetics plays in breeding an alive and healthy calf, as well as the possibility of breeding for this trait.

“If we can help provide some data to help make the decision-making process easier and more accurate, as well as make the job of a calf rearer a lot easier – why not do it,” she said.

“The investment of time, in the whole scheme of things, is not huge to help by providing some data for a project that’s got huge potential.”

Dairy farmers can get involved and share their thoughts on this work by completing a 10-to-15-minute online survey. Take the survey

Information collected from the survey will be used on conjunction with historical genetic records analysis and the on-farm calf records to further develop a Calf Health ABV.

Then the industry’s Genetic Evaluation Standing Committee – including dairy farmers, researchers and industry representatives – provides advice and recommendations about this research to help guide DataGene with the implementation of the ABV.

This research contributes to DairyBio which is an initiative of Agriculture Victoria, Dairy Australia and the Gardiner Foundation. DairyBio provides the research pipeline to develop and maintain Australian Breeding Values which are delivered by DataGene.f

DataGene’s December release of Australian Breeding Values (ABVs) can be accessed at

For more information contact: DataGene 1800 841 848 or or

DataGene is an initiative of Dairy Australia and the herd improvement industry.