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How to manage dairy-to-beef calves' health after purchase

Margins are very tight in these systems so it is critical to ensure your calves thrive


Bedding and ventilation: Newly arrived calves should be quarantined in a shed with a high roof and plenty of straw.

Bedding and ventilation: Newly arrived calves should be quarantined in a shed with a high roof and plenty of straw.

Bedding and ventilation: Newly arrived calves should be quarantined in a shed with a high roof and plenty of straw.

Failure to invest in dairy calf-to-beef system health measures will hit farmers in their pockets, a Teagasc beef expert has warned.

Teagasc beef exert Alan Dillon was addressing a recent Teagasc beef conference in Co Cavan, where he said the first step in a healthy dairy-calf-to-beef system was buying direct from farms and keeping the number of farms you purchase from to a minimum.

"Source calves from a reliable source," he said. "We're really encouraging buying off farms. You'll probably be able to get a better handle on colostrum being fed to calves, in terms of what the housing conditions are… you don't want a calf that has had a setback already.

"If a calf has had a touch of scour already, it's probably going to be more susceptible to pneumonia at a later date.

"If you're buying calves that have been standing at a mart for a day wet, or standing in a trailer at night, it's not ideal. They're young animals, their immune systems are not equipped to deal with that stress - they're not like a weanling or a yearling."

When the calf arrives

When calves arrive on farms, Dillon said, there should be a very clear protocol. He said it is critical that calves are quarantined in a shed with a high roof and plenty of straw.

"If you think they are bedded, bed them again in straw. They're only babies. You want them in an environment that has plenty of ventilation, clean straw, dry underneath - you're mollycoddling them for a while," he said.

The calf shed should be 15-20°C with a good slope on the floor to ensure quick run-off of urine, with access to clean water at all times.

Feed schedule

Dillon said the calves should get an electrolyte as soon as they arrive to ensure there is no dehydration after travel.

After that, the calves should get two litres of milk replacer the next morning followed by two litres of electrolytes that evening.

Dillon advised repeating this process the second day before moving on to a normal feeding regime from the third day onwards.

Health programme

To avoid diseases and to give calves the best chance of thriving, Dillon said all farmers should be carrying out a vaccination programme. Respiratory diseases are the biggest threats.

"When calves come from a number of sources, you're going to end up mixing diseases from different herds. The real one that hits those calves is RSV and Pi3," he said, adding that an intranasal shot should be administered three days after the calf arrives to cover for these diseases.

Dillon said it is critical that they receive this shot before further stresses like dehorning take place.

"If you dehorn them the same day as giving the shot, you'll probably render the vaccine useless as it doesn't work in a stress environment."

Mr Dillon outlined a robust health plan for dairy calves that arrive on a farm to cover the first seven months of the calf's life.

Dairy calf to beef market

Dillon concluded that with the current market for beef, the key for farmers is to keep the purchase cost of the calf low while also making sure that the animal health protocols are robust.

"We're dealing with low beef prices so don't pay too much for the calves. The beef price today is €3.65/kg," he said.

"It's going to cost you about €1,000 to take that calf through to finishing at very efficient levels. To make a margin on these, you need to take a very cautious approach overall."


It pays to have everything in place ahead of calving

With the calving season starting on suckler farms, preparation, organisation and planning are key management skills that will help during the busy weeks ahead, writes Francis Bligh.

A live healthy calf from each cow is what every suckler farmer sets out to achieve, so one of the most important facilities required is a clean, dry well-bedded pen for a cow showing signs of calving.

Safe and secure gates will ensure nothing collapses, and a head gate and calving gate will help to restrain a cow if assistance is required.

These pens should be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected before use.

It is important to discuss vaccination options against scour with your vet. Where calves receive adequate colostrum soon after birth, vaccinations have a proven ability to reduce scour problems and associated workload.

For weaker calves or where colostrum is not plentiful, it is important to have a few litres of colostrum in the freezer.

Three to four litres of colostrum in the first 2-3 hours is crucial.

Try to make sure you have the following items to hand: clean calving ropes, disposable gloves, iodine or chlorohexidine solution to treat navels, a clean calving jack, lubricant, electrolyte powders for scour treatment and a clean stomach tube.

Now is the time to replace light bulbs, improve lighting, set up a red lamp and check drinkers.

If you have broadband, low-cost wireless cameras linked to mobile routers are becoming very popular in calving sheds.

Watching the cow through a laptop or mobile phone can help reduce visits to the shed.

When organising calving think about the location of gates to help make movement of cows between slatted pens/loose housing and calving boxes easy.

Keep an eye on cow body condition, silage quality and mineral requirements to make sure cows are in a healthy, fit condition at calving.

Francis Bligh is a Teagasc drystock adviser based in Longford

Indo Farming