Farm Ireland
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Monday 18 February 2019

The 10 commandments for healthy calves

Farmers at the recent CalfCare event, which was organised by LacPatrick Dairies as part of the Animal Health Ireland (AHI), Teagasc and Volac series of CalfCare events this spring
Farmers at the recent CalfCare event, which was organised by LacPatrick Dairies as part of the Animal Health Ireland (AHI), Teagasc and Volac series of CalfCare events this spring
FarmIreland Team

FarmIreland Team

Over the next six weeks, over 540,000 calves will be born on beef and dairy farms in Ireland. Farmers at a recent CalfCare event week learned that it is critical to give calves the best start before weaning. 

Speaking on the farm of LacPatrick Dairies and Maudabawn Co-op supplier Gerard McNally, Monaghan-based Teagasc Dairy Advisor James O’Donoghue and JP Harkin from Volac told the some 150 in attendance that farmers need to get their calves to double their bodyweight between calving and weaning. 

The event was organised by LacPatrick Dairies as part of the Animal Health Ireland (AHI), Teagasc and Volac series of CalfCare events this spring.

“If a calf lands on the ground at 40kg or 45kg then you need to be hitting 90kg or 100kg by the time you’ve weaned them. You need to get there as quickly as possible,” O’Donoghue explained. 

“To do that, you need to make sure that the calf is healthy. Calves must get the right about of milk and concentrates to make sure the rumen develops correctly. If the rumen doesn’t develop in the right way then you’re going to have longer-term issues for the calf later in life.

"A healthy calf will day gain about 0.7kg/day so the first 40 days are critical. If they aren’t doing that growth rate in the first 40 days, you’ll be feeding 9kg or 10kg per day when they’re weanlings or yearlings to catch up,” Harkin said.

O’Donoghue and Harkin spelled out 10 key steps for which farmers should abide by in order to have healthy calves hitting their weight targets. 

Draft Free Zone

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O’Donoghue said the number one priority for calves is to ensure calves have an environment which is draft-free. 

“The last thing you want is a draft getting into the calves.”

Harkin said “the perfect shed doesn’t exist” but a farmer must do everything to block drafts getting to calves. 

Don’t spare the straw

“Despite the price, there’s no substitute for straw especially for calves under three weeks,” Harkin said pointing out that peat and sawdust are cheaper alternatives and may be suitable for older calves but do not have the same benefits as straw in the first three weeks. In particular, the Volac man pointed to the nesting effect of straw which has a critical role in new born calves.

How much milk replacer do I need?

This is an age old question for farmers feeding milk replacer instead of whole milk to calves. O’Donoghue says a farmer should, in perfect conditions, budget for having one bag of milk replacer for every 27 calves per day.  

Access to fresh water

Access to fresh, clean water is critical. and It’s not enough to think calves will get all their fluid from milk which should be considered as a feed source according to O’Donoghue.

Check the temperature

“If calves are not warm enough then they will just burn through their metabolic energy to keep warm rather than using it for growth,” O’Donoghue said.

If the calf’s temperature is under 10°C then the farmer must act by increasing bedding and feeding. For every 5°C under 15°C, an extra 50grams of milk replacer should be fed to calves. 

Feed concentrates

From day one, easy access to concentrates should be left with calves. Harkin said the concentrates are not so much about the feed value but are critical in developing the rumen as quickly as possible in order to hit weight targets. 

Ease of access for farmer

A farmer needs to be able to access pens of calves at ease to assess the health of the calves. A farmer should not have to climb multiple gates to get into see if their calves are healthy and well.

Slope and drain

A calf pen should have a gradient of 1:20 to ensure that urine and damp runs away from the calves. Bedding should be laid at the top of the slope in the pen.  Drains collecting seepage should have a fall of 1:60.

Give them space

No more than humans, calves need their space too. O’Donoghue said a calf needs to have between 1.5m2 and 2m2 per calf up to 8 weeks of age. Aim for the higher space allowance as this will be needed as the calf grows.

Check for happy calves

How to do you know if your calves are happy? They lie with their head and ears up and their feet nestled underneath them according to Harkin. 

“That’s what you want to see when you’re looking at calves in a pen.”

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