Prioritise health to halt calf loss
The end of January and early February usually heralds the start of the calving season. This is generally an extremely busy time on farms, with cows calving and newly born calves to be fed and cared for along with all the other usual jobs.
However, herd sizes are increasingly resulting in extra demands on labour and less available time for individual attention to calves. Increased herd sizes can also put a strain on the health status of the herd.
Indeed, data from the CMMS indicates that mortality rates of calves born to a dairy bull are currently 8-9pc, excluding stillbirths, which account for around 2pc of pregnancies. Approximately half of these deaths occur within the first six weeks of a calf's life. In a recent survey conducted by Animal Health Ireland, to elicit opinions from experts and farmers regarding animal health issues facing the Irish livestock sector, calf health was identified as one of the main problems. Planning and preparation for the impending calving season, along with the implementation of a few simple measures, can help reduce on-farm mortality levels.
When the calf is born there are two key things to remember: i) iodine for their navel and ii) colostrum. When applying iodine to the calf's navel, use a tincture of iodine -- it contains alcohol that will help dry the cord and discourage pathogen movement up the cord, reducing the risk of navel-ill and joint-ill.
Do not be tempted to use an iodine-based teat dip as it contains emollients intended to keep teats soft and pliable, and will not dry the umbilical cord.
Colostrum (biestings) is the cow's first milk after calving and is present for up to six milkings. At birth, a calf's immune system is not fully developed, and colostrum imparts passive immunity from the dam to the newborn via intestinal absorption of antibodies. Generally a calf should receive 5-6pc of its body weight (typically 2 litres) in colostrum within the first six hours of life, and another 5-6pc of its body weight when the calf is eight hours old. As time from birth increases, the ability of the calf to absorb the antibodies is reduced. Therefore, it is critical to feed colostrum as soon as possible after calving to ensure maximum long-term immunity is acquired. Colostrum feeding should continue for three days after birth. The ideal source of colostrum is the calf's own dam -- for two main reasons: i) it minimises the potential spread of Johnes Disease and ii) the calf will acquire immunity to fight pathogenic organisms encountered on the home farm.