Farm Ireland

Monday 19 March 2018

Dairy: Colostrum is the first line of defence for calves

It is vital that newborn calves receive three litres of colostrum within two hours of their birth to help them thrive
It is vital that newborn calves receive three litres of colostrum within two hours of their birth to help them thrive

Mary Kinston

January offers a great chance to motivate yourself for the year ahead and I took the opportunity to attend the recent dairy conferences organised by the Irish Grassland Association and Positive Farmers.

I chaired a session at the Positive Farmers event on a topic close to my heart, which is calf rearing and achieving healthy calves.

Every year, as I prepare my calf rearing unit I set myself the target of zero scours, which I am still yet to realise.

We have worked our way through issues such as cryptosporidium, rotavirus and coccidiosis with our herd through improved management strategies, vaccination and hygiene to a point where the impact and losses are small to negligible.

I have a good understanding of the headaches that sick calves cause and the ease that healthy calves create on the spring workload.

However there's always something to learn and Emer Kennedy and Riona Sayers did not disappoint.

High mortality rates in replacement heifer calves limits the national herd's ability to expand and also to achieve genetic gain.

It's sad to think that nationally only 48pc of the dairy heifer calves born in 2007 calved down between 22 to 26months of age in 2009, so there are certainly improvements to be made.

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Farmers must focus their attention on appropriate colostrum management as colostrum is the calf's only defence against disease. Getting this wrong will cost you dearly, but simple and small changes to a system of management can make a big difference.

Management priorities should include:

Colostrum Management

Sell surplus bull and heifer calves early to increase care, time and attention given to replacement heifer calves

Improve hygiene of housing (calf pens) and feeding equipment

Identify the causes of scour/diarrhoea outbreaks

Feeding calves six litres per day compared to four litres - this reduces the numbers of days taken to reach target weaning weight, with no difference in the incidence of scour

Waste milk (containing antibiotics) should not be used to feed calves

OAD feeding can be used from four weeks of age with no detrimental effect on calf performance of health, to reduce workload but must be checked twice a day

Treatment of scour should rehydrate, replace electrolytes and correct acidosis so buy products which are appropriate. Stomach tube full dose to assist rehydration

Continue to offer fresh milk throughout diarrhoeic episode.

Provide adequate housing for calf rearing with good ventilation, with a deep straw bed and prevent down drafts.

Calves reared outside during the milk feeding period can assist in reduce pneumonia but require some form of overhead shelter from the wind and rain. Calves showing any sign of ill thrift must be brought back inside

Calves should be weaned at 18pc (100kg for 550kg cow) of their mature body weight rather than less than 15pc (<82kg for 550kg cow)

Good biosecurity assists in the prevention of pneumonia. Vaccines can also prevent and control the calf pneumonia complex.

Calves with pneumonia should be given pain-relief (eg anti-inflammatory) alongside antibiotic treatment.

Colostrum management

Colostrum is the milk produced from the first milking post calving

Irish dairy heifers generally produce high quality colostrum although it does improve with lactation number.

Colostrum quality decreases as the time between calving and milking increases, so collect colostrum as soon as possible and ideally within the first six hours post calving.

Late calvers tend to produce lower colostrum quality as they become excessively fat.

New born calves should be fed within the first two hours of birth

Feed 8.5pc of the calf's birthweight to maximise absorption of immunoglobulins which is 3litres for 35kg calf and 3.5litres for 40kg calf.

Do not rely of the calf's ability to suckle this amount. Bottle or stomach tube the calf.

Colostrum must be stored immediately after collection in clean containers at less than 4C in a fridge, or frozen for more long term storage. Clean plastic milk bottles are very useful for this.

Mary Kinston is a discussion group facilitator and consultant, and farms with her husband in Co Kerry

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