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Tuesday 6 December 2016

Our Farm: Learn the secrets to rearing healthy young calves

Eamon O'Connell

Published 20/10/2016 | 13:30

Rearing calves is not easy. It takes careful planning, attention to detail and a lot of hard work.
Rearing calves is not easy. It takes careful planning, attention to detail and a lot of hard work.

Rearing calves is not easy. It takes careful planning, attention to detail and a lot of hard work, according to Eamon O'Connell is a vet based in Nenagh, Tipperary. This was apparent at a recent calf-to-beef farm walk on the property of Mike Flynn in Puckaun, Co Tipperary.

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Mike and his wife Kathleen bought 130 Hereford cross calves this spring. They were fed on milk replacer, slowly weaned onto concentrates and then turned out to grass. Of all the calves that were bought, only three did not make it to grass.

This represents a mortality rate of less than 3pc - a phenomenal achievement for a calf-rearing unit.

How did Mike and Kathleen manage to keep so many calves healthy and thriving?

Eamon O'Connell
Eamon O'Connell

Herd Health Plan

Well, firstly, at the beginning of the year, a herd health plan was devised. Targets were set, potential problem areas were highlighted and an action plan was put in place.

Under the plan, all calves entering the farm are isolated for three days in a shed completely separate from the main rearing unit. This is done so as to minimise transfer of disease to healthy calves that are already on farm. Calves are vaccinated on arrival with Bovilis IBR live intranasally and Bovipast RSP.

This means calves are given immunity to IBR, PI3, RSV and pasteurella. All calves are also treated with a coccidiostat on arrival.

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Why vaccinate?

Now ,you may be asking yourself if there is any need for all this injecting and dosing. Well, imagine for a minute the journey a three-week-old calf has to undertake from a farm, say in west Kerry, to the Flynns' in North Tipperary:

He is fed early, around 7am, and then loaded onto a trailer with four or five others. He is unloaded at the mart and put into a pen with around 30 calves from all different herds. It is cold and draughty in the mart. There is nowhere comfortable to lie and the young calf is breathing in the same air as about 300 other calves.

The mart finishes at around 5pm. The calf is loaded onto a cattle truck with 30 other calves and is driven to the Flynns' farm. By the time the calf is unloaded into the comfort of his new home, at 11pm, he is tried, hungry, extremely stressed and has been in contact with every virus and bacteria imaginable.

Gordon Peppard (Teagasc Greenacres Calf to Beef Programme Advisor), with Kathleen and Michael Flynn on their 57-hectare farm at Killard, Puckane, Co Tipperary. Photo: Fergal Shanahan
Gordon Peppard (Teagasc Greenacres Calf to Beef Programme Advisor), with Kathleen and Michael Flynn on their 57-hectare farm at Killard, Puckane, Co Tipperary. Photo: Fergal Shanahan

Vaccination is not only vital to boost the calf's immunity, but it also protects the other calves that are already on the farm. It is also important to remember that the calf has been on his feet for nearly 18 hours. He needs a warm, dry bed to lie in to recover from his long, arduous day.

Cleanliness and hygiene are critical

Before any calf enters the rearing unit, the shed is power-washed and disinfected. Feeding utensils and feeders are thoroughly cleaned every day. The isolation shed is cleaned and disinfected regularly.

Minimising stress is vital when it comes to the health of young calves. Calves are grouped together in small groups of four to five per pen.

The pens are bedded down with lots of straw. (A quick rule of thumb when it comes to calf pens is that if you kneel down in the straw in a pen and your knees get damp, then the pen needs to be cleaned out and more dry, fresh straw added.)

There is lots of natural light in the calf shed and the correct amount of air movement. The less stress a calf is under, the less likely it is to get sick and the more likely it is to thrive.

Observation

In the few days after arrival, a lot of time is spent simply observing the calves. This allows any sick calves to be spotted very early, which greatly increases their chances of recovery.

Samples are taken from any sick calves to determine the cause of the problem.

Feeding

Consistency is important. Calves are fed the same concentration of milk replacer at the same temperature at the same times every day.

The calf quickly gets into a routine which again helps to minimise stress. This holds true for the farmer as well - work is always a little easier when a routine is established.

Turnout

The calves are vaccinated against clostridial diseases before turnout to grass and given a booster again four weeks later. A dosing strategy is devised based on faecal sampling throughout the year.

The Flynns are excellent at grassland management and finishing cattle. However, it is their ability to successfully rear a calf in the first year that stands out the most.

Now is the time to sit down with your vet to develop a herd health plan for calf rearing next spring. Identify any problem areas and take action to make improvements.

A little time now, when everyone isn't so busy, could save a lot of time - and money - later.

Eamon O'Connell is a vet based in Nenagh, Tipperary

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