Farm Ireland

Saturday 21 April 2018

Outside expertise can help you take the trial and error out of calf rearing

Conclusion: there is value in reviewing the calf rearing set up before you start calving. File photo.
Conclusion: there is value in reviewing the calf rearing set up before you start calving. File photo.

Mary Kinston

Last month I held mandatory veterinary practitioner meetings with my groups under the Knowledge Transfer (KT) Scheme.

Having worked as a consulting officer in New Zealand where vets, bankers, fertiliser reps and others regularly attended the local discussion group, I know and have seen the value of this additional expertise at group meetings.

It's therefore no surprise that group members got value out of these meetings where the local vet attended.

While numerous issues were covered, my groups all started by discussing calf rearing facilities.

A common conclusion is that there is value in reviewing the calf rearing set up before you start calving. I'm sure at some point all farmers have been in a situation where you have too many heifer calves born and you're scratching your head as to where to find a pen for these animals.

One of the negatives of herd expansion and compact calving has been the increasing pressure it has put on existing calf rearing facilities.

At one of the meetings a farmer discussed how he had reviewed his calf rearing set-up prior to calving by evaluating how many calves he would have to rear when considering cow numbers, calving rate and the 50:50 probability of heifers to bulls.

This provided him with an estimate of calf numbers and housing needs on a month to month basis having sold surplus heifers and bulls as soon as deemed possible.

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From here, he created a system which had enough space from the word go and that this was the turning point from which problems dissipated and his calf rearing system became successful.

Farmers have often fallen into the trap of being reactive rather than proactive where purpose built calf rearing facilities are rare and many are forced to use accommodation for calves that is often not fit for purpose.

It's interesting to note that on the first critique of a facility, visiting farmers usually assess the ability to bed and muck out the unit.

The labour challenge at calving is well known by all farmers and a house that can be bedded up and mucked out quickly and easily is invaluable.

This leads on to the need for hygiene in calf rearing.

Some units may need to be power-washed and disinfected, while others are ready to go. Farmers often don't give enough importance to this measure or may only consider its value in sections of the calf-rearing process.

For example, the calf housing may be clean and disinfected with calves receiving clean and fresh bedding.

However, the calving boxes could be left to accumulate manure and to become an increasingly dirty environment as the season progresses.

It's key to understand that a new born calf has no immunity at birth and the only immunity to disease comes from an adequate feed of colostrum.

Guidelines to snatch and grab the calf from the cow came about as a strategy to minimise the calf's exposure to dirt and diseases from the calving environment. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that the teat is the first touch that a calf makes on its mother. All farmers have watched a calf bash its nose on the ground as it tried to stand and then subsequently bump its mouth off her leg or belly before finally reaching the teat.

Any opportunistic bacteria, virus, or protozoan may prevail in this environment and infect the calf before any colostrum has even been received. The use and management of colostrum is the single most important thing you do in a calf's life, yet its use on farms varies widely.

A good guideline is available from the AHI website, but essentially calves should be fed the colostrum from the first milking, within two hours of birth and be given at least three litres.

Bacterial growth

Due consideration should be given to how this colostrum is collected, stored and administered.

For example, I have seen colostrum stored at room temperature in a dairy, but this is far from best practice as it can deteriorate from bacterial growth in these conditions.

Colostrum should be stored immediately after collection in clean containers at less than 4C in a fridge - alternatively, it can be frozen.

Administration of three litres of colostrum is also variable. There is still a desire in certain farms to let the calf suck, yet there is no way of knowing what the calf may have taken.

Good farmers have started to intervene by bottle feeding or stomach tubing in an effort to make sure three litres of colostrum is received within two hours of birth to maximise immunity.

Again this poses challenges with three litre stomach tubes not easy to find. Some farmers have gotten around this problem by using the bag stomach tube and topping it up mid-tubing.

In conclusion, the core message is that being critiqued by other farmers and a vet may help you make small changes that can make a big difference.

Mary Kinston is a discussion group facilitator and consultant, and farms with her husband in Co Kerry.

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