Gillian O'Sullivan: Calves' pneumonia outbreak was like something from a horror movie

2018 Farmer of the Year Gillian O'Sullivan pictured on her farm in Dungarvan, Co Waterford. Photo: Gerry Mooney
2018 Farmer of the Year Gillian O'Sullivan pictured on her farm in Dungarvan, Co Waterford. Photo: Gerry Mooney
A ringside view from the Irish Angus Cattle Society Show and Sale in Carrick on Shannon last Saturday, which featured 60 bulls and 34 heifers. Photo: Gerry Faughnan

Gillian O'Sullivan

The hardest lesson to learn with farming is that no matter how well you do a job, despite how carefully it is planned and executed, Mother Nature will have the final say.

Our weanlings were in smashing order this year. The spring had been kind, they sailed through that early growth phase without a dirty tail in sight, guzzling litres of milk like body builders. They were a pleasure to watch in the summer, a real even batch with shiny coats and a hunger for the green stuff, while remaining out grazing until the third week of November.

Sometimes we have out-wintered weanlings on Redstart kale with great success, but given the hot demand for dairy stock this year we had sold all our surplus replacements by midsummer.

At the weigh-in a week ago, they were averaging 247kg, considerably ahead of a targeted 43pc of mature weight for December. Facing into housing time, every weanling had a cubicle and ample room at the feed barrier, no competition, no pressure, no worries…. or so I thought.

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On Monday, I heard a cough while cleaning out and bedding the cubicles and re-checked them that evening with no serious concerns. On Tuesday it was like something from a horror movie, three of them were panting and miserable and the rest appeared hunched and lethargic.

A sickening chorus of coughing had my head in my hands as I quickly took in the unfolding pneumonia outbreak.

To assess how serious things were, I coaxed them into the shed and crush to take temperatures. With 80pc of the group above 39.5 degrees it was clear we were in trouble and rapid veterinary intervention was required.

It really takes the wind out of your sails to see stock look unwell so suddenly. You question yourself and ask what went wrong, where did I slip up? Sometimes there are obvious answers, but others you have to take it on the chin.

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Anti-inflammatory and antibiotic were prescribed for those affected by our fantastic local vets from Déise Veterinary.

As a mum of three kids who bounce through one childhood illness after another, it's not unusual to have to wait a week to see a GP so there is a lot to be said for having a vet on the yard within a short time of phoning any time of the year, day or night.

I know I'm a little bit biased when it comes to vets but when you experience life from both sides of the counter you have a different perspective and vets still offer an incredible service that has changed very little in the past 10 years.

Working in the veterinary sector comes with it's challenges, as it can be incredibly wearing to face one difficult situation or sick animal after another on a daily basis.

The phrase 'compassion fatigue' has come to describe how burnt out individuals in the profession can get and it's appalling that vets still have the highest suicide rate of any occupation.

I still recall having to put an old collie to sleep for a sheep farmer and knowing he was without his only companion at home haunted me afterwards.

I digress, but remember over the holidays, keep an eye out for your vet and despite any difficulties that may crop up on the yard, as my husband reminded me today, once those worries are outside the door it's manageable.

We're still not out of the woods with the weanlings yet, as one remains very poorly but as a preventative going forward, we could vaccinate against respiratory viruses.

With no history of viral pneumonia on the farm it hadn't been an issue before, so vaccination will be a consideration for next season.

For the moment, they are being checked every few hours and while I have a tentative hope that they have rounded the corner, I still find myself peeking into the shed expecting the worst though.

On a more positive note, the week had started out well with a good mart performance for empty cull cows. With 7pc empty this year we had milked them on as the cull price was appalling in October.

Recent positivity around beef required to fill the pork deficit in Asian markets due to ASF is slowly trickling down the line, but not to the killing line just yet.

There was a sense of optimism I haven't seen for two years around the sales ring as 60 cull cows were sold with some of the fleshier crossbreds hitting €1/kg. If that positivity is reflected in factory prices before the year's end there will be definite potential for beef farmers to confidently invest in stock in 2020, a real plus for the farming sector.

As 2019 draws to a close, I reflect on the positives: that kind spring and calving time, the great help on the yard, a successful breeding season, plentiful fodder and meeting a few inspiring characters within the industry. I have high hopes for meeting the changing times ahead.

Indo Farming


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