How dairy farmers can build their way out of the potential calf welfare crisis

We must be prepared to rear all calves to the same standard as replacement heifer calves

Use a pen within an existing cattle shed
Use a pen within an existing cattle shed

Eamon O'Connell

I have read and heard a lot in recent weeks about the impending 'calf crisis' or 'calf tsunami' facing us next spring. Scanning results countrywide predict that, on many farms, there will be record numbers of calves born in February and March.

The market value of dairy bull calves is predicted to be at an all-time low.

Many are also predicting that export facilities will not be able to handle all the excess calves that will come on the market together.

It is apparent that farmers could be faced with keeping bull calves on farm until they are close to six weeks of age. A perfect storm is brewing.

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Welfare is the biggest issue facing us in this scenario.

We live in a world now where the consumer of dairy products is interested and engaged and demands high welfare standards.

Calf welfare that is substandard will not be tolerated and could be potentially devastating for the dairy industry.

We must prepare to rear all calves on farm to the same standard as our replacement heifer calves, for a longer than normal period.

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Problems abound, but what solutions are available?

If you have the luxury of building a new calf shed, it's a case of problem solved.

However, for the majority, other solutions must be found.

Convert an existing shed

Many farmers will turn to a machinery shed or grain shed (some might be tempted to look at a turf shed) as extra calf accommodation.

These sheds were not designed for calf rearing so now is the time to get them assessed and adjustments made as required.

* The shed floor should first be addressed.

The slope of the floor should be 1 in 20 to allow adequate drainage and keep bedding dry. If water/urine does not drain adequately, a perfect environment for scour causing bacteria and viruses is created.

Equally, in cold weather, a wet shed will feel even colder.

* Calves in group housing need 1.8 square metres of floor space each. For a lot of converted sheds, a few loads of filling and concrete will be required.

* Ventilation and air movement: it is very difficult to eliminate draughts while simultaneously ensuring adequate air movement. Open-ended sheds may need some sheeting or a windbreaker to reduce the breeze.

Very enclosed sheds may need some sheets to be lifted or replaced with Yorkshire boarding. Canopies within calf pens can also be considered.

* Feeding area: the space in which calves are fed milk and meal should be away from the bedded area and free draining.

This is to avoid bedding becoming saturated quickly as calves will usually urinate at feeding time. Automatic feeders spill water after every wash cycle also.

Use a pen within an existing cattle shed

A calving pen or a bay of a cattle shed may be considered as extra calf housing.

* All the points made regarding converting an existing shed should be considered.

* Physical contact between the calves and older cattle should be limited. This can be achieved by simple putting stock board on dividing gates.

This will also serve to reduce any draught.

* Pneumonia vaccination should be a big focus.

If calves share the same air space as adult cattle, they are particularly susceptible to the bacteria and viruses that cause pneumonia.

Adult cattle that are in the shed should be most certainly vaccinated against IBR, particularly focusing on a vaccine that reduces shedding of the virus.

The less virus that is shed by the adult cattle, the lesser the risk of the calf in the pen next door developing pneumonia.

There are intranasal vaccines that protect against viruses such as RSV or PI3 that can be given to calves as young as one week old.

* Pneumonia vaccination should be considered in all calf-rearing systems. Your vet will advise you on the best vaccine strategy to suit your enterprise.

* Rear some calves outdoors. If extra space cannot be found in sheds, outdoor rearing may have to be considered.

 *Shelter is most important. Unweaned calves must have a roofed shelter in the form of DIY build or pre-made calf hutches. The opening of the shelter should be faced away from the prevailing wind.

* Ground conditions should be monitored daily. If the area around the shelter is getting poached or dirty, the shelter should be moved.

* If calves are being housed in individual hutches, they should be moved there immediately. If they have spent some time indoors, they should only be moved out in good weather.

* In cold conditions, steps may need to be taken to keep calves warm


Contact your vet to call to your farm and carry out a full calf rearing consultation.

We should aim next spring to rear all calves to the very best of our ability.

It may not be a lucrative enterprise and in the case of some calves, it may be loss making.

However, as farmers and vets, we have a responsibility to uphold the highest of standards when it comes to animal welfare.

Indo Farming

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