Farm Ireland

Thursday 22 February 2018

Why there's been a rise in number of dairy calves starved of oxygen at birth

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Louise Hogan

Louise Hogan

A worryingly higher number of calves in dairy herds were starved of oxygen at birth this year as farmers struggled with high workloads, a Teagasc expert has reported.

Jonathon Kenneally said the lack of viewing at calving was worrying, as figures show a third of calves in unobserved calvings died from anoxia or lack of oxygen.

"It probably was higher this year as with herd expansion, numbers are getting bigger and labour is a big issue out there as well," he said.

The figures were compiled from 6,000 cows in 38 Munster dairy herds this spring.

Farmers reported 260 dead calves, with post-mortems and lab tests performed to definitely identify the causes.

In calvings identified as 'hard' or difficult, the wrong presentation was blamed in 40pc of the deaths, 'anoxia' in a further fifth and defects in 12pc.


Mr Kenneally said the biggest issues they found was the wrong presentation and a lack of observation at calving. Earlier intervention would have saved a lot of the calves in cases of wrong presentation, he said.

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He said the key message was that improved calving supervision reduces calf losses and they also urged farmers to submit cleanings or the fetus to the regional vet laboratory for analysis.

Dairygold chairman James Lynch recently warned that farmer burnout could derail growth in the dairy industry,

The State's largest farmer-owned dairy co-operative has launched an "in-depth shareholder survey" to address the issue.

The analysis, expected to be completed by mid-summer, will feed into Dairygold's expansion plans up to 2025 and beyond.

"We're getting a lot of noise on labour, particularly in the first six months of the year," said the Dairygold chairman. "If something doesn't happen in terms of the availability of labour on the farm, it's going to prohibit or restrict the growth at farm level."

And while the adoption of management techniques such as compact calving had helped improve margins, the challenges of calving 60pc of herds inside three weeks, or 80pc inside six weeks, can overwhelm farmers.

"They have no help, they are not getting the time off, and more stress is added by bad weather, so we're looking for feedback on what needs to happen," said Mr Lynch. "We haven't got a labour force aimed towards manual labour at farm level."

A massive expansion in dairy cow numbers since 2015 has ramped up the pressure at farm level.

The increased workload has already taken a toll, with farm accident figures confirming that dairy units are among the most dangerous enterprises in an already lethal sector.

Deformed calves

Kenneally also urged farmers to report any deformed calves to ICBF.

He said they did come across a number of genetic defects with bowel issues or 'waterbelly' calves.

"Around 60-70pc of those are male," said Mr Kenneally.

A number of large thyroids were also identified due to mineral deficiencies, such as selenium.

He said farmers were strong on vaccination programmes and there was no sign of any unusual diseases.

"We had 38 herds, all dairy herds, in Munster. Any time they had a calf born that was dead at birth or died within three days of birth we went down and collected the calf and did a post-mortem on them," he said.

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