Farm Ireland

Thursday 18 January 2018

Rising calf numbers pose health challenges

There has been a significant rise in cases of mastitis and other dairy health issues this spring

Hygienic housing is essential to avoid disease in calves.
Hygienic housing is essential to avoid disease in calves.

Eamon O'Connell

As the extremely busy spring is now well underway, the benefits of expansion in the dairy herd are plain to see - more litres in the tank, more calves on the ground and more cows in the field.

However, it's not all rosy in the garden. Increased cow numbers has given rise to some serious health issues - a significant rise in cases of mastitis, increased calf mortality and a significant rise in infertility levels.

We are seeing more cases of acute-mastitis in freshly calved cows this spring than any other year to date.

On many farms, cow numbers have increased by 20pc or more. However, the facilities on farm have remained the same.

There should be a minimum of one cubicle space per cow. Imagine if you came home after a hard day's work in the middle of the spring to find someone asleep in your bed and you had to stand up and wait until the bed became free.

Already very tired, you would get very stressed! This is exactly what happens to a cow. She is in the middle of the most stressful time in her year, and she doesn't have a place to lie down when she needs to.

Increased levels of stress leads to a decreased level of immunity which leaves the cow open to picking up infection. With an already swollen udder and probably dropping milk, mastitis is inevitable.

An inadequate number of calving pens is also a contributor to mastitis.

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There should be one individual calving pen to every 15 cows. Each calving pen should be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected after each calving.

If this doesn't happen, levels of bacteria build up very quickly. It is inevitable that a cow will get mastitis in this environment.

The calving pen is the first point of contact that a new born calf has with the world. If a calf is born into a dirty environment, infection is inevitable.

We have seen more and more cases of navel-ill in calves where the farmer is adamant that the navel has been disinfected after calving.

The problem is if the calving pen is dirty and full of bacteria, the damage is done as soon as the calf hits the ground.

The calf should be born in a clean, freshly disinfected pen with an adequate amount of clean fresh straw in order to minimise the risk of infection.

Over stocked calf pens are also becoming a problem. A pen that housed 10 calves last year is now being expected to hold 15 or more. Immediately, the calves in this situation are being put under stress. Because of the extra calves, the straw bed gets wet much quicker and the air in the shed gets stuffy and humid.

Scour and pneumonia take hold very rapidly in an environment like this.

Similarly, with extra calves on the ground, makeshift pens are being constructed to try to accommodate the extra numbers.

If pens don't have a concrete floor, proper cleaning and disinfection cannot take place.

If you think that your calf house is not sufficient in size to accommodate the numbers of calves this year, consult with your vet who will advise you on stocking levels and ways to minimise the risk of infection in young calves. With quota restrictions lifted, there is a significant increase in the number of cows being "milked on" through the winter and into the spring.

There is also a significant rise in the number of cows calving late - a cow that calved in February last spring is now due to calve in April this year.

Any other year, this cow would have been culled due to infertility but now she is milked on for longer. The old saying 'Any day a cow calves is a good day' does not ring true in this post-quota era. A dairy cow must have a calf, milk well, and calve again within a 365 day period. Every day past this eats into profits. With the increase in herd size and also the lack of skilled labour, fertility in the dairy herd is suffering.

Bulling cows are being missed, young bulls are being asked to do too much work and cows themselves are under stress from being asked to walk further and milk more.

Without doubt, expansion in the dairy herd is a very welcome development for all involved in the agriculture sector.

However, the issues outlined need to be addressed this spring in order to ensure that an expansion in herd size doesn't lead to a reduction in profit.

Eamon O'Connell and Aidan Doyle are vets at the Summerhill Clinic, Nenagh, Co Tipperary

Indo Farming