Management issues at the root of many calving health problems
We all believed dry weather would come sometime and now that it finally has it sure is welcome although the plummeting temperatures are somewhat of a sting in the tail.
Two hundred days of constant rain and waterlogged soils has taken its toll on farmers along the western seaboard.
Recently we had a review of our animal health programme on the farm to identify areas we can improve on.
Two areas we looked at were general cow health and calf health from birth to assess current practices to determine what is working for us and what we should change.
Cows were all dry by December 15 at which time they were dosed for fluke and worm and also treated for lice.
During the year they were vaccinated for IBR, lepto and salmonella.
Problems at calving or with calf rearing will have a negative impact in several areas from calves not reaching their target weights to the volume of milk produced in their first lactation to cows taking longer to go back in calf.
I view problems in these areas as a systems failure on my part as I believe management has a major impact on the final outcome. Two years ago we endured a lot of hardship due to an outbreak of rotavirus in the calf house. We knew the calf houses were full to over-crowded.
All the advice at the time was that once rotavirus came in there was no option but to vaccinate.
I decided that some of my work practices in the calf house could be improved on before conceding to another vaccination.
We put a programme in place, gave the sheds a thorough power-washing, used a good disinfectant and sprayed the beds with good bacteria twice a week. The theory was that the more good bacteria there were, the less room for bad ones.
We used more straw under the calves and minimised overcrowding in the pens.
The upshot was that rotavirus did not show up last year so we are now following the same programme again.
This year, similar to 2017, half the herd have calved in 16 days so the sheds have filled quickly.
Enda is responsible for the collection, tagging and registration of all calves and, along with Trish, he ensures colostrum is fed immediately after birth.
He is using the 220 litre mobile milk cart to accurately measure the milk to the older calves.
Last year we used it with great success to mix and feed the milk replacer. It can mix enough for 80 calves at a time and the consistency of the mixing is something we could never achieve with a hand whisk.
This year we have a young green cert student from Mountbellew College with us for her 12-week placement and she has settled in well as part of the team.
Calf rearing is time-consuming, but skimping on any aspect of it can quickly lead to trouble and a lot more expense in the long run.
We test our colostrum with a refractometer and have identified that first milk taken within two hours of calving is reading as high as 26 whereas after 12 hours it has been diluted by the cow moving into production mode. At this stage, the readings can drop below the 20 mark which is poor colostrum.
A very important part of the process is to have the cow in the correct body condition at calving. For the most part we get this right, but it is a challenge due to our practice of rotating cows between the cubicles, the pad and winter grazing.
Looking ahead, because of the increased stocking rate we will build a cubicle shed to house more cows and also to give us flexibility to practice more on/off grazing during periods of wet weather.
We also decided to include a large indoor calving box as part of this planning application. This will create a better working environment that will allow easier supervision and a dry warm space for calving.
The intention was to build this big enough to house at least 10pc of the herd at calving time. This year, as in 2017, our biggest calving day resulted in 5pc of the herd calving in one 24 hour period.
A concern I am now having is based on hygiene around calving.
For the last 10 years we have being calving on the pad and for years before that, when we had a lower stocking rate, we calved on a paddock near the house. Sometimes the elements were a challenge but we never had any infections from the calving areas.
The weather is the greatest natural cleanser that we have and now a roof will expose us to other threats.
An area I feel I am losing ground on is calving ease. For years as we moved towards a cross-bred herd, pretty much all bulls were easy calving.
However, as I am increasing the Holstein/Friesian percentage of the herd we are using a lot more black and white bulls. This is leading to bigger calves and greater calving difficulty which obviously requires more supervision at calving.
An area that I would value more progress and reliability on is sexed semen. This would allow a more targeted use of dairy AI with a complete focus on the female offspring as well as allowing the bottom percentage of the herd to be bred to female beef.
I would prefer all the calves born to the dairy herd to be female as they are invariably smaller with shorter gestations than their male counterparts.
Back on the farm, calving is going well with no milk fever to date and two retained after births, one due to twins.
Cows are gone to grass full time night and day and we will start milking twice a day this week. AFC opened at 800 kg/DM/ha lower than normal. We are spreading one bag to the acre of a new product called Top Phos on all the milking platform this week to boost grass growth
I am increasing the N applications to 100 units per acre by April 1 to boost spring grass production.
Henry and Patricia Walsh farm in Oranmore, Co Galway, along with their son, Enda, and neighbour and out-farm owner John Moran
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