Farm Ireland

Monday 23 April 2018

7-step guide to reducing stress and disease pressures in autumn weanlings


We should never underestimate the value of weanlings being able to lie down and chew the cud
We should never underestimate the value of weanlings being able to lie down and chew the cud
Tommy Heffernan

Tommy Heffernan

Natural weaning could take up to a year or longer, as a cow will naturally know she can't feed two calves and wean her own calf before the birth of the next.

In our modern systems we aim to speed this process up by weaning between seven to 10 months. The creep feed a suckler calf gets in advance of weaning is really important because it encourages rumen development, is high energy and helps the calf transition from milk and forage diet to meal and forage only diet.

In terms of performance, the key measures for me are hitting a target DLWG (Daily Live Weight Gain), minimising disease and mortality. Weighing is critical to benchmark how we are doing. It allows us to refine the system and check performance. The profit is in these tiny margins.


Stress affects performance? You're saying: 'We all know that'. We may know it but pneumonia is still one of the main reasons for mortality and under-performance in our weanlings in the autumn time.

Another hidden cost is the stress disease causes for the farmer. Big disease outbreaks this can really impact on a family farm.

Here's my seven-step guide to reducing stress in weanlings.

1 Feeding concentrates

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When this is done four to six weeks in advance of weaning, it allows good rumen development, thus reducing nutritional pressure after weaning. Allowing calves to forward creep feed on good grass also helps.

2 Housing

Weaning and housing at the same time can bring huge challenges or stress. Having comfortable rubber mats or straw bedding allows less pressure on stock. We should never underestimate the value of weanlings being able to lie down and chew the cud comfortably.

Reducing stocking densities can be hugely beneficial. Most importantly, getting ventilation right is key, as fresh air kills pathogens and good clean airflow in sheds is vital. Of course temperature and humidity can also affect the amount of infection pressure in sheds. Weanlings can't have enough fresh clean water in big drinkers.

3 Vaccinating

If you know your animals are at risk of pneumonia then certainly vaccination is a huge aid. We must ensure vaccines are delivered in advance of the risk period. Vaccination is all about stimulating the immune system so it is primed for the pathogens we vaccinate against. Immunity is all about memory, so when the immune system is challenged by these bacteria/viruses it can mount a good immune response. Remember vaccination alone will not solve pneumonia issues. If the infection pressure is too high or stress is severe enough, it will suppress immunity.

The person to plan and advise you on this is your own vet with knowledge of the disease history on your farm.

4 Management factors

The best time to carry out dehorning or debudding is in young calves. Dehorning and castration at weaning dramatically increases stress and lowers immunity. This can undo potential vaccine efficacy and also opens the door for viruses and bacteria.

It is better to dehorn or castrate around four weeks before or after weaning. Also, don't underestimate the value of anti-inflammatory injections.

5 Watch the weather

If there are poor weather conditions in outdoor-weaned calves it increases stress and opens the door to infections. Ideally aim to wean when weather is consistent for five to seven days. 'Fine chance,' I hear you say.

6 Early treatments

Pneumonia can have lasting effects on lung tissue spotting and treating cases early can reduce its effects and lessen shedding and spreading. Talk to your vet about this, look out for signs of coughing, snotty noses and high temperatures.

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7 Parasites

It's weaning time and you are feeding stomach worms along with the weanling.

We don't want gut worms so checking weights and faecal egg counts can help us make better dosing decisions. If you're dosing as standard, time the dose three weeks in advance of weaning.

Lungworm are now a huge issue in suckler calves. Overdosing, weather, grazing strategies are all playing into the hands of the parasite. My own experience is that if you are waiting for dung samples you might often be too late. Acting fast when coughing or clinical signs appear is my advice.

In conclusion, suckler farming is a business and we need to get serious about measuring that business performance. We may be forced to change as we may not have oral in-feed antibiotics or some of these 'stronger' critically important antibiotics (CIA) in the future. Antibiotic resistance is now a very real issue that will affect us and how we medicate our animals. This ultimately means we will have to get better at managing pneumonia.

Tommy Heffernan is a farm consultant based in Co Wicklow

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