Every dairy farmer knows that we are just around the corner from the busiest time of the year. To flesh out this statement a bit more, I rang a few farmers to get a feel for how they are thinking as we approach the late January, early February period.
Talking to the dairy farmers, one quote stood out: "Don't be a busy fool in the spring." On further probing, I was told that one should avoid behaving like a headless chicken and wasting time during a busy spring. What constitutes wasting time? Well, messing with a water trough for two hours, or welding a broken gate. During calving season, you don't want to be a plumber or a welder.
All farmers mentioned being well organised with a good set-up in place. This fact, they regarded as critical, since all were now calving more cows than they were five years ago. The smart operators have extra labour organised for two days during the week. This takes the pressure off and it is something a greater number of dairy farmers should be doing on a routine basis in the spring.
Committed dairy farmers should aim to calve at least 80pc of the cows and heifers in the first six weeks of the calving season. This kind of success rate heaps pressure on the stockman and on facilities. Unless you are well-organised with a good work routine, the whole process of calving cows, moving calves and feeding them, can very easily get on top of the best stockman.
This can easily lead to its own problems with poorer cow and calf health, resulting in increased veterinary expenses. Any dairy farmer will tell you it's not the numbers that are the problem. The real problem is the sick cow or the cow that's 'down', the sick calf or the groups of calves with scour. These issues can make for very long days and nights on the dairy farm.
So, how does one eliminate or minimise the problems caused by sick animals this spring?
• Calving facilities: Calving is the most critical time of a cow's life. What you do around calving time could have long-term consequences for both the cow and her calf. What kind of calving facilities do you have?
Aidan Brennan, farm manager at Curtin's Farm in Moorepark, where they calve 130 cows, said that they have just two long calving boxes, bedded with straw. Straw is added every day and the calving boxes are cleaned out and disinfected every 10 days. The boxes are next to the cubicle house.
At the entrance to the calving pen is a table which contains the following essential pieces of equipment: a box of arm-length gloves, a box of hand gloves, paper towels, a dispenser with soap detergent, lubrication and a tap with running water.
Other critical pieces of equipment, such as calving ropes, are left immersed in a gallon of water, which has been treated with Dettol. A cover is placed over the bucket to ensure no dirt gets into it. The calving jack is also to be found here.
Also at the entrance to the calving box is a footbath with a gallon of disinfectant beside it. Dipping the wellies in a solution of disinfectant is absolutely critical to prevent carrying any bacteria, parasites or viruses to the newborn calf.
Dipping the boots again when you come out of the calving box is equally as important to breaking the disease/animal link at this time. Unfortunately, it is an area all too easily forgotten about when the rush is on to give the cow assistance to calve without difficulty.
A second set of calving ropes should also be bought at this time and placed beside the rest of the items. Instead of a table placed beside the calving pen, I know of one farmer who has bolted a section of box gutter to the wall. This holds most of the items I previously mentioned and it is also neat and tidy.
Don't forget the iodine solution. This is sprayed onto the navel cord of the calf. This is critical as the cord is the only part of the animal not covered with a protective layer of skin and is therefore very susceptible to entry of infection.
Applying the iodine to the navel will immediately kill any bacteria that may have already become established.
Once the calf arrives on the ground in the calving pen, it is immediately exposed to all kinds of bacteria and parasites present in the environment. This is why the presence of the clean bed of straw is critical to reducing the challenges faced by the calf.
• Colostrum: At birth, the calf's immune system is not fully developed. It needs assistance. This is given by feeding the calf its own colostrum (biestings).
Colostrum contains antibodies and growth factors, and is superior in nutritional value when compared with whole milk. On-farm colostrum management is the single most important factor in determining calf health and survival. Failure of the calf to receive the recommended amount of colostrum contributes to excessively high pre-weaning mortality rates.
So, how much should the newborn calf get and when should they get it? As time from birth increases, the ability of the calf to absorb antibodies is reduced. Absorption is greatest in the first few hours of life and starts to decline progressively after four to six hours, and ceases after 24 hours. Therefore, it is critical to feed colostrum as soon as possible after calving to ensure maximum immunity is acquired.
Calves should be given 3l of colostrum by oesophageal tube or by nipple feeding within two hours of birth, with a total of 5l within 12 hours of birth. Calves should receive 10pc of their bodyweight in colostrum in the first 24 hours. For example, a 45kg calf will need 4.5l, while 3.5l will suffice for a 35kg Jersey cross calf. Leaving calves to suckle colostrum from their dam is not recommended as there is no guarantee that they will have sufficient intake. The amount of colostrum that calves drink voluntarily does not change within the first few hours after birth, so there is no benefit in delaying first feeding.
How long should the calf be left with its mother? The advice here is pretty straightforward. The calf should be removed within the first hour.
Why the rush? The issue here is that the longer the calf remains with its mother, the greater the risk of it becoming infected with whatever is in its immediate environment. If the calf is left with its mother for 24 hours, it is at a much higher risk of picking up infection.
• BVD: When you are tagging the calf, you should also consider tagging with a BVD tissue tag. The objective here is to find out if the calf is a persistently infected (PI) animal. If he/she is a PI animal, then the calf is a virus factory for BVD and will shed it every day that it is alive.
You don't want this calf on your farm but neither do you want him/her on any other farm in the country. If we are to get rid of BVD in Ireland, then we must start with the PI calf.
Once you have sent away the tissue sample, you should know within five to seven days the BVD status of the calf. If it shows up as a PI calf, then the calf should be immediately isolated, before it is slaughtered.
Although the scheme is voluntary for this year, I would urge you to start now. For one thing, it will count as one of the three compulsory years of the programme and the job of eliminating PI calves will have begun. This will have enormous benefits for the dairy industry.
• Mastitis in early lactation: The benchmark for clinical mastitis cases in early lactation is five cases per 100 cows. You might think that this is a tall order, but it is achievable. The work starts in the two weeks before calving.
Cows will begin to bag up during this period and clean, dry cubicles are essential. Indeed, they are essential for the length of time the cow remains indoors. Good hygiene is essential to keep mastitis at bay. Cows calving down with mastitis are a sure sign that all is not well on the hygiene front. The animal most at risk here is the in-calf heifer. She doesn't have the protection of the teat sealer.
How do you ensure that a disease such as mastitis is kept at bay during the early post-calving period? Let's look indoors into the cubical house and at the operation of the scrapers first. At Curtin's in Moorepark, the scrapers run four times a day. However, some farmers I spoke to say they run the scrapers at least six times a day and maybe even eight times. One farmer quoted the following times for operating scrapers: 7am, 10.30am, 1pm, 4pm, 7pm, 10pm and 4 am.
Operating the scrapers seven times a day ensures that cows' feet will be clean and a minimal amount of dung will be taken up onto the cubicle beds.
And, what of the cubicle beds themselves? Clean, dry beds are essential in the fight against mastitis. If you have rubber mats on them, all the better.
At Curtin's, the cubicle beds are hand scraped twice a day. They are also dusted with Agri-Cal lime. Half the length of the cubicle is done. This ensures dry cubicles.
What about using disinfectant on cubicle beds? Certainly, the use of a disinfectant will kill any bacteria that are present on the cubicle bed. Has it a place? In a situation where hygiene practices are not good, it will help the situation, but it is not a substitute for good hygiene practices.