Farm Ireland

Monday 20 November 2017

Keep calf stress levels to a minimum to maintain disease immunity in stock


Peadar O Scanaill

The ground is very wet after all the rain and the suckler herds are beginning to move indoors. Virus pneumonia always springs to my mind when anyone talks of young stock going into the sheds. Stress is the biggest trigger of a pneumonia outbreak and housing time is a stressful time in a weanling's life.

If we picture the suckler calves out in the fields still on their mothers, we see healthy, thriving animals completely comfortable in their environment. If we then make a giant leap forward and picture a pen of yearling cattle on a comfortable straw bed all lying and chewing the cud on a winter's evening, again we see cattle comfortable in their environment.

Our problem is to get from scenario one to scenario two without incurring losses. The losses are inevitable if we don't plan the weaning process correctly. They are also inevitable if the moving indoors is not planned correctly. And to cap it all off, we try to wean and house the young stock all in one go -- and we're really asking for trouble.

The first step is to wean this year's calves while everything is nice and settled outdoors. We're not reinventing the wheel here. This weaning programme has been well perfected and spoken of over many years. The basics always remain the same.


We should get the young calves eating some supplementary feed outdoors. Then slowly increase their reliance on that food as they are eased away from the mothers. The separation can be done in several ways, involving steps where some mothers are removed while others remain until only one or two late calvers are left in the batch.

There's no hard and fast rule except at every step of the way the aim should be to keep stress levels to a minimum. When the calves are weaned, moving indoors is next. Again, focus on stress and how to avoid it at all costs. These weanlings will be carrying worms and fluke, so a suitable dose is required.

At this time of year, consider using a worm and fluke combination aimed at stomach worms and adult fluke. This will work as long as you remember to repeat the adult fluke dose several weeks after housing. The trouble is that this dosing activity involves putting the calves up the crush, which is also quite stressful.

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And why is stress such an important factor? The answer to that question lies in the animal's own immunity. Under normal circumstances, the calf's own immune system is well able to kill off any virus that might threaten it. When we stress an animal, we greatly reduce its immunity and the virus can establish itself in the lungs, literally overnight. Where does the virus come from? The virus is constantly living in one or other of the cattle, battling and losing with the immune system day in, day out.

That is until some stress enters the equation. One animal goes down with the virus and the virus multiplies a million fold overnight. This becomes too great a challenge for the next guy, and away starts an outbreak. Keep stress down and the herd's immunity should win the day.

The herd's immunity can be improved by using a well-focused vaccination regime. If IBR, PI3 or RSV is the virus commonly found on your farm, then you should use a vaccine against any or all of these three main viruses.

The first injection should be given before there's any talk of housing, and if a booster is required, then ideally give this 10 days before going indoors.

Each product is different, and in practice it's easier to do all the injecting and dosing as the weanlings go indoors. But that's far from ideal, and this work should be done well in advance of the first day of housing.

One way or the other, we must get the ball rolling now. If weaning is not yet under way, then time is fast running out.

Get a worm and fluke treatment into the animals, as well as the pneumonia vaccine. Repeat the vaccine if required and have the calves' immunity at its maximum before we venture indoors. That should help us to arrive at scenario two, with a batch of well-settled weanlings in a comfortable shed without any losses. That's the aim and the game is now on.

Peadar ó Scanaill is a vet in Ashbourne, Co Meath, and is a member of Veterinary Ireland Tel: (01) 457 7976

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