On dairy farms around the country, farmers are preparing for their busiest time of the year. The beginning of calving marks the start of a new calendar year and this period must go well for the economic success of the farm.
Having a calf herd health plan in place is vital to ensure success. The goal is to have healthy calves at the end of the spring, ready to move on to the next stage of their lives and ultimately into the milking herd where they will return profits for your investment in their care.
Being on the frontline I am very aware of the problems that farmers face in dealing with rearing calves. This article will hopefully, help you understand why planning around this can be crucial to success.
Dry cow management plays a key role in getting live healthy calves on the ground. Having healthy cows in the right body condition calving down can reduce problems with dystocia. Also paying attention to trace elements like iodine and selenium can be very important in the dry-cow diet, which can ultimately affect the health of calves born.
The first 24 hours is crucially important in a calf's life and a lot of mortality occurs in this period. Also, a lot of management decisions at this time can affect the health of that calf in the coming weeks.
Cows close up on calving should be separated and, where possible, individual calving pens used.
Minimising stress is the key, while hygiene in the calving pens is top priority. A lot of the diseases and issues I see in calves are picked up from bad hygiene around calving, poor navel care and conditions that increase infection risk.
What basically happens is that the disease levels will build up over time and even with healthy calves, things start going wrong in a poor environment. So it's hygiene, hygiene, hygiene in the calving pens.
Once the calf hits the ground a management plan should be in place. What I try and promote is standard operating procedures. This allows for a system to maintain a consistent level of care to prevent issues of ill health even towards the end of the calving season.
I recommend all new born calves are placed on their chests and stimulated manually and vigorously. They can be held upside down for 30 seconds and cold water can be poured in their ears to stimulate breathing. When a calf is holding its own head up, ''hanging' the calf is generally unnecessary.
I find an area of huge importance is navel care. If not done properly, this can be a huge source of infection. Where farmers are getting navel infections, joint ill and septicaemias in young calves they should pay particular attention to this area. Where you are calving in well bedded, clean pens one navel wash is enough.
However, if hygiene or other problems are an issue then thorough regular washing not spraying is recommended. The agent I have most confidence in for this job are chlorohexidine based products.
Tommy Heffernan (MVB) is a vet working in Avondale Veterinary, Co Wicklow and is a member of Xlvets Ireland. He has a keen interest in herd health and preventative medicine. @tommythevet
The more I investigate calf health issues the more I am made aware of the vitally important role colostrum plays.
Colostrum as everyone knows is important but time and again I see cases where calves have failed to get adequate quantities and this leads to problems down the line.
Three litres within two/three hours of birth is the golden rule. I once read that it takes a calf up to 30 minutes to suckle 2.5 litres, so that indicates the patience needed to get three litres into a calf. I am also aware that it is easy to recommend this but at four in the morning, when you're tired and you just want to get back into bed it is not always easy to achieve.
In my experience it should be number one priority on any farm.
Your vet can also check that calves are getting adequate amounts of colostrum with a simple blood test (day 2-14).
Another thing I do is actively encourage farmers to check their own colostrum quality on farm.
It is easy to do and very beneficial especially when investigating health problems. You can't beat feeding individual cow colostrum to a calf for many reasons.
Pooling colostrum is thought to reduce quality and when freezing ensure it is frozen promptly and thawed out correctly at a temperature of 50C.
For the full benefits a calf is better to suckle colostrum but where there are problems or the calf is a poor feeder, tubing in by stomach tube is good practice in my opinion.
So the aim is to let the calf suckle first and only stomach tube if needed.
I am yet to find good synthetic colostrum that even comes near matching the quality of cow's colostrum.
There is no evidence to suggest any of the synthetic colostrum products can compete with the real thing.
A lot of these pastes and potions are used but I can't stress enough the benefits and superior quality of natural colostrum.
If no alternative is available then synthetic colostrums are better than nothing.
A big percent of new-born infections are viral and the only thing that generally stops these affecting calves is a healthy immune system which is directly linked to colostrum intake.