4 critical checkpoints to improve calf rearing

From birth to entry into the adult herd, raising a dairy calf costs an average of £1,800. Therefore, it is essential to follow the process well.

Ruminant veterinarian Becca Cavill explains that there are four points of control for the newborn calf: the calving pen, colostrum management, hygiene and vigilance.

Attention to detail is required at each checkpoint to get the calf off to the best possible start.

See also: How to prevent and treat common calving problems

Below, Dr Cavil shares his advice and we find out how a Somerset dairy reduced calf mortality from 10% to 2.5%.

1. The calving pen

The environment a calf is born into can significantly affect the first few weeks of its life and beyond. In the worst case, poor calving setup can lead to increased calf mortality.

Best tips:

  • Thoroughly clean the pen at least every three weeks
  • Use it strictly for calving
  • Clean it well between calvings
  • Remove gross contamination and subculture at least once a day
  • Make sure the location is somewhere that can be checked frequently
  • Make sure adequate handling facilities are in place.

2. Colostrum Management

Colostrum is essential for proper growth and immunity in newborn calves.

However, research conducted in 2016 by the Welsh Youngstock Project showed that only 52% of heifers studied had adequate colostral transfer of antibodies.

Best tips:

  • Measure intake and quality to ensure calves are getting enough good colostrum
  • Consider freezing any excess negative cows at Johne
  • Keep feeding equipment and milk preparation areas as clean as you would in your own kitchen.

3. Hygiene

As calves are born without immunity, good hygiene is essential in raising calves. This encompasses both the environment and the equipment.

Best tips:

  • When cleaning enclosures, remove all organic matter and pressure clean – using detergent if necessary
  • Apply disinfectant – making sure to use a product that kills all pathogens, including cryptosporidium
  • Use a low pressure sprayer for a final wash
  • Allow washed items/areas to dry completely
  • Establish a foot barrier between dirty and cleaned areas to prevent cross-contamination
  • In addition to cleaning, it is important from a hygiene point of view to take into account any problems related to temperature changes, drafts and damp bedding, all of which can make the calf more vulnerable to infections.

4. Vigilance

Vigilance is essential so that any problems with the calves can be identified and corrected.

Best tips

  • Ensure all staff are properly trained or experienced to detect any issues early
  • Have a robust protocol in place to quickly and effectively address any health issues
  • Frequently monitor and observe calves, noting any changes in colostrum supply, temperature, behavior and fecal consistency
  • Keep a close eye on the quality of bedding, air, water and feed as these can all significantly affect calf health.

Case study: Ross Edwards, Manor Farm, Somerset

©Ross Edwards

An 800-head dairy unit calving year-round in Somerset reduced calf mortality from 10% to 2.5% by changing calving protocols.

About 18 months ago, farm manager Ross Edwards began experiencing significant calf health issues, including severe diarrhea at around seven days, pneumonia at four weeks and a high calf mortality rate. between birth and 42 days – with mortality peaking at 10%.

So he set out to make changes in conjunction with his veterinarian, Becca Cavill, focusing on the four critical control points.

Under the old system:

  • Manor Farm heifers calve at 23 months
  • Calves are born in a straw yard
  • The milking parlor and calving barn were away from the calving area
  • Once in the barn, the calves received 3 to 4 liters of colostrum.

Calving pen changes

Cows calving in the straw yard were considered a key issue in poor calf health and performance.

Although the straw was dry, Mr Edwards said they were struggling to get rid of the volume of manure with such a high flow of cows and calves in the area.

To overcome this, he is now aiming for a thorough cleaning of the calving environment every three weeks, reducing to every two weeks during a busy calving period.

“The stone base means disinfection is difficult, but we apply lime to keep things clean,” says Mr Edwards.

The straw yard is now also reserved for close-up cows that must calve within five days of entering the yard.

Although this system requires more vigilance from transitioning cows, the benefits are worth it, he says.

A specific enclosure for cows in active labor has also been set up and is covered with a bedding of sand, with the aim of providing a cleaner environment than straw for the newborn calf.

Changes in colostrum

Four liters of colostrum are now given as soon as possible, ideally within two hours of birth, and fed through a bag and tube to ensure the quantity and timing of the first feed.

A second feed of two additional liters per calf is also given.

Colostrum is harvested in the milking parlor to optimize milk hygiene and distributed fresh or frozen in 4-litre bags to preserve quality.

This quality is now also measured using a Brix refractometer, and if it is below 20%, it is supplemented with high-quality colostrum powder.

Any colostrum containing more than 24% is a priority for dairy heifers.

calf feeding equipment

©Ross Edwards

Hygiene changes

Feeding equipment cleaning regimes have also undergone a change.

More importantly, the buckets now hang upside down on a makeshift rack – consisting of two broom handles tied together – to ensure they are completely dry before re-use.

After having problems with mold forming in the calf bags after cleaning, they are now frozen when cleaned to prevent bacteria growth.

Mr Edwards also uses different colored teats for morning and evening feeding so that staff can clearly see if the teats have been changed and cleaned.

Separate tubes are also used to bag newborns and sick calves.

Changes in calf management

With nine staff, Edwards says shared responsibility and communication between the team is key to ensuring smooth protocols during calf rearing.

“If we’re not happy with a calf, for example, we’ll put something on the door so anyone walking by knows that the calf might be sick.

“If someone isn’t there the next day, that means whoever goes back to work the next morning will know how to keep an eye on that calf,” he explains.

Sometimes raising calves can be quite demoralizing, he adds, particularly when the animals are sick, so it is essential to ensure that all members of the team are supported and to reassure staff on the fact that they are doing a good job.

Dr. Becca Cavill and Ross Edwards spoke at the Youngstock National Event at Harper Adams University

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