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Thursday 19 October 2017

5 key steps to ensure thriving calves

Good nurture, cleanliness and disease prevention in the early months of life will determine if heifer calves will achieve full potential

A young calf is the most vulnerable on the farm
A young calf is the most vulnerable on the farm

Eamon O'Connell

'Your calves are shining!" Surely this is one of the highest compliments that can be paid to any farmer's calves, but it is a description reserved for calves thriving to their maximum capacity.

Everyone knows that a healthy thriving calf is a profitable calf. This is very much the case when it comes to replacement heifer calves for the dairy herd.

Studies have shown that a heifer calf that thrives well in early life can yield up to 30pc more milk in her first lactation than a poorly thriving counterpart. She has an 80pc higher chance of still being in the herd after five years than her poorly thriving counterpart. So, how can we make sure a calf gains as much weight as possible in the first few months?

1 Colostrum

It may seem that every farming related article you read this month will talk about colostrum. This is for good reason. Ensuring that a calf receives an adequate amount of good-quality colostrum will set it up for the rest of its life. Remember the colostrum 1,2,3 rule - first milk only, within the first two hours and feed three litres of it.

2 Housing

This must be:

Clean: Housing should be power-washed and disinfected (consult your vet for advice on best disinfectants).

Dry: A deep bed of fresh straw. If you kneel down and your knees get wet, then a full clean out is needed. A young calf will spend more than 20 hours every day lying down. Where it lies must be dry and comfortable.

Warm: Heat is vital for young calves. A calf needs to be warm to thrive. If the temperature drops below 10°C, then a calf will start to burn energy to keep warm. Consider a red lamp over the pens of very young calves during spells of cold weather.

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Fresh: Fresh air but no draughts. This can be difficult to achieve, especially in sheds, that were not purpose-built to house young calves. Now is the time to get your vet to visit your calf shed to assess airflow. You would be amazed what a few small inexpensive changes can do to improve air quality in a shed.

3 Milk

Traditionally, calves were fed four litres per day - for a 40kg calf, this amounts to 10pc of its bodyweight. But this is not nearly enough to ensure adequate weight gain. A calf will easily tolerate 15pc of its bodyweight. For a 40kg calf, this amounts to six litres per day. This extra two litres is the difference between a thriving, calf and a calf just about holding its own. Extra milk fed in early life is cheaper and better than extra meal fed at the weanling or heifer stage.

4 Biosecurity

This is all about keeping disease out of the yard. A young calf is the most vulnerable animal on the farm. Visitors should be kept to a minimum during the spring, especially to the calf house. Any necessary visitors should thoroughly clean and disinfect their boots before entry. If you have come from the mart, or someone else's farm, change your clothes and disinfect your boots before going on to your own farm.

5 Vaccines

Pneumonia and scour are the two biggest killers of young calves. There are a number of vaccines available to aid in the prevention of disease in young calves. A single case of pneumonia in a calf costs, on average €53. Research has shown that the cost of a disease outbreak can be up to six times the cost of prevention.

The heifer calf is the future of your dairy herd. This heifer calf should be calving down her third calf in five years' time to reach her profit potential. The first few months will determine whether this actually happens or not.

Eamon O'Connell is a vet with the Summerhill Veterinary Clinic, Nenagh, Co Tipperary

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