Farm Ireland

Monday 10 December 2018

Calving health measures pay big long-term benefits

Busy time: calving season
Busy time: calving season
Dan Ryan

Dan Ryan

Many dairy farmers will be in sixth gear as we approach week five of the calving season. Pressure points have increased this year because of restricted opportunities to get freshly calved cows out to grass, slurry storage facilities are full on most farms and it has not been possible to spread fertiliser or slurry to support early grass growth.

There are three welfare elements which require management optimise health outcomes during the calving season.

Human Health

Farmers work long, unsociable hours during calving. It is next to impossible to get extra skilled staff. Social isolation in association with work overload will lead to depression. This results in a failure to optimise the opportunity for both cow and calf health.

It is important to maintain social contact and tap in to any assistance that might be available from neighbours and relatives.

Cow Health

We now have the challenge of managing dry cows, close up cows, fresh cows and late lactation cows.

Failure in any group will have a knock-on outcome as cows move to the next group in the production cycle.

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The current dry cow group will be your late calvers for this year. This group of cows will contain a higher proportion of your older cows, problem breeders from last year, cows carrying twins and over-conditioned cows.

Do not neglect the management of your late dry cows. These cows form the basis of an extra dividend in the farm's profits this year.

There are significant gains from optimising welfare of your late calvers in the next six weeks. Focus on the cows carrying twins and those over-conditioned cows. They need to get a bolus containing monensin four to five weeks before calving.

This bolus has been scientifically proven to tackle metabolic disorders which reduce the survivability of cows in their next lactation.

The close up cows require a comfortable environment with access to clean water and fresh forage and concentrate to blend at all times.

This is an area neglected on many farms. Avoid any risk of bullying when cows are mixed with new cows introduced to the close up group.

Bullies need to be isolated as they will cause other cows to have womb infections and consequent poor reproductive performance in the next lactation.

Any stress, be it silage quality, supply of clean water, adequate mineral and vitamin supplementation will result in cows which are calved a week with dirty womb discharges.

The freshly calved cows face the stresses of early lactation, demand for feed intake, repair of the reproductive tract and the adjustment to lactation.

Ideally, the fresh cows should be managed as a separate group for the first week after calving.

This is a high risk period for metabolic diseases such as Milk Fever and Ketosis.

There is an overemphasis on grazed grass for the freshly calved cow. Cows naturally lose weight in early lactation. Grazed grass needs to be balanced with supplemental silage and concentrates to avoid no more than 0.5 BCS loss in the first six weeks post calving.

Cows are currently losing too much weight, which is resulting in too many cows with womb infections when two to three weeks calved.

These infections will result in more cows not cycling when the breeding season begins in April/May.

Ensure your milking parlour has been serviced.

Mastitis and high SCC not alone effect milk price but also increase the risk that your cows will not get back in calf.

Calf Health

Colostrum quality and quantity is detected by management of the cow in the dry cow transition period.

The challenge now with your later calvers is maintaining high immunoglobulins for these are needed to avoid the risk of coccidiosis, cryptosporidium, rotavirus infections.

Calf houses will carry a heavy burden of disease risk after the first four weeks of the calving season.

Automatic calf feeders have improved health status and growth rates of young calves on our larger dairy units. They are also an excellent labour saving device.

Many farmers use the automatic feeder to rear their future replacements until weaned off milk.

However, male calves are frequently neglected prior to sale as young calves.

There is a key requirement that all calves get adequate colostrum to ensure resistance to disease when sold onto other farms.

Thermo-regulation is a major challenge for the newborn calf. A draught-free, well-ventilated calf house is essential to avoid health disorders.

Calf jackets are a proven aid to help young calves improve overall health and survivability.

Calves experiencing health setbacks such as cryptosporidium will have poorer fertility, as maiden heifers.

Your late-born calves may not be future replacements, but you need to focus on creating a business where customers can source healthy calves for their beef enterprise.

Dr Dan Ryan is a bovine reproductive physiologist and can be contacted at

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