Why it’s important to keep calf management ‘simple’

Calving is a fast approaching on most dairy farms and farmers need to make good use of the downtime between dry off and the commencement of calving to ensure that everything is up to scratch.

Speaking at Wednesday night’s Bonanza Calf Nutrition information meeting in Co. Carlow, Dr. Christine Cummins said that good management comes down to three key principles – good hygiene, consistency and keeping it simple.

Addressing a room full of dairy farmers, Christine stressed that the first week of life is critical for the calf’s further development.

The benefits of colostrum are widely know and feeding 3L of good-quality colostrum in the first two hours of a calf’s life is key to future health and performance.

However, the Bonanza Calf Nutrition technical manager said transition milk also plays a vital role in the early stages of life.

“Farmers cannot forget about the transition period between colostrum and milk feeding. The gut (small intestine) may be closed to IGG antibodies, but feeding a transition milk – high in antibodies – is very beneficial.”

This, she said, is important as the calf’s small intestine has to withstand the physical and chemical abrasion of food, digestion and the continuous attack of pathogenic organisms.

“Within a few days of birth, the cells of the small intestine are replaced by new cells and the surface antibodies – present in colostrum – are rapidly depleted.

By feeding a transition milk like Transformula, the small intestine is lined with antibodies to protect the calf from illnesses such as scour.

Another benefit of feeding a transition milk, she said, is that it is higher in protein; allowing the calf to get off to the best possible start.

“Transformula also contains antibodies and plant extracts, which help to protect the calf from numerous scours such as cryptosporidium.”

Rumen development and feeding

Bonanza’s Joe Murphy also touched on the importance of rumen development, adding: “It’s all about getting the balance of enough milk, but not too much.

“Feeding excessive or ad-lib amounts can slow down the calf from eating concentrates and, as a result, rumen development will be delayed. It’s also critical that you are consistent when it comes to feeding your calves.”

On milk replacer choice, he said, skim milk powder is best for young calves, as it is more digestible.

He also advised farmers who are using computerised feeding systems to be aware that the system does not reduce the need for good management.

You must remember that the calves will need to be on the feeder until they are that little bit older to ensure that their rumen has developed properly.

“Just because you have a computerised feeding system doesn’t mean you can take your eye of the ball when it comes to managing calves.”

Housing and hygiene

With housing, Christine said, the aim is to minimise the stress on the calves and now is the ideal time to make sure your facilities are up to scratch.

“You need to make sure that your calf-rearing facilities are well ventilated; but you also need to avoid having drafts and extreme changes in temperature.

“It’s all about minimising the stress on the calves. You need to be aware of the environment – both within the whole house and within each individual pen.”

The Bonanza representative also touched on the importance of hygiene when it comes to keeping calves healthy. She stressed that it’s important not to let bugs build up.

This is important as regular cleaning of calf pens is associated with lower incidences of scour and lower mortality rates. Regular disinfection of calf pens will also minimise cross contamination and disease risk.

Dealing with scours

Touching on her research work from Teagasc Moorepark, Christine said: “Farmers shouldn’t just assume that a scour is nutritional. They need to identify what the actual cause is.

From my research in Moorepark, I found that farmers that just assumed that the cause of scour was nutritional had higher levels of mortality on their farms.

“It’s so important to figure out what the cause of the scour is and to stop it from spreading,” she said.

Meetings in the new year

To help farmers prepare for calving next spring, Bonanza Calf Nutrition will host a number of other information meetings in the new year. The next meeting is scheduled to take place on January 10.

Meeting information:
  • January 10: Mullingar Park Hotel, Mullingar, Co. Westmeath;
  • January 11: Hotel Kilmore, Dublin Road, Killygarry, Cavan;
  • January 17: Ard Ri Hotel, Tuam, Co. Galway.

All of the meetings will commence at 7:30pm and tea and refreshments will be served afterwards.