Economic Loss From Calf Rearing Is Huge

UK - With estimates that six to eight per cent of calves will die before they are weaned and about 30 per cent of calves will suffer some form of illness during the same period, calf rearing is an area that can be improved on many dairy farms, according to vet, Nathan Back of XL vet practice, The Shepton Vet Group, Shepton Mallet, Somerset.
calendar icon 29 December 2009
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"The economic losses from this are huge - particularly considering dairy heifer calves are currently worth £300-400 and beef cross and bull calves are achieving good prices," reports The Farmers Weekly.

Because of this, the practice initiated a calf health project, sponsored by Intervet/ Schering Plough Animal Health, looking at ways of measuring and improving calf health for 20 of its farmers.

The project covered a wide range of issues linked to calf health including colostrum management, scours and growth rates.

Colostrum management

Blood samples were taken as part of the scheme, and showed colostrum absorption was inadequate on many farms. "Only 29 per cent of calves sampled had good levels of colostrum absorption with a further 52 per cent having minimal absorption and 19 per cent having poor absorption. Interestingly, many calves with poor absorption became ill with either scours or pneumonia."

In response to these findings, a newborn calf and colostrum protocol was created and, as a result, many farmers have started to measure colostrum quality and feed only good quality colostrum.

"We advise farmers to feed four litres of good quality colostrum to calves within six to eight hours of birth. And these improvements in colostrum feeding have significantly reduced the number of sick calves on many farms," says Mr Back.

Calf scours

In order to keep scours under control, it is essential all farm workers are aware of scour treatment practices. As a result, we have developed a calf scour treatment protocol, says practice vet, Paddy Gordon.

A combination of injectable antibiotics and anti-inflammatory drugs were used to treat scouring calves, as well as oral electrolytes, to reduce the effects of dehydration. "There is new evidence to suggest anti-inflammatory treatment improves calf health and hastens recovery and this was seen on a number of farms," explains Mr Gordon.

Calf scour testing kits from Intervet/Schering Plough Animal Health were also trialled to test faecal samples for both scouring and healthy calves and were successful in identifying various causes of calf scour.

"These kits can identify scours caused by rotavirus, coronavirus, E coli or cryptosporidia and farmers found it useful to test a scour sample immediately after collection and have an accurate result within 15-20 minutes of the sample being tested."

Identifying the cause of scours on specific farms allowed the correct initial and preventative treatments to be used.

Growth rates

Growth rates are markedly reduced by scouring and this was seen on a number of farms, says Mr Back. "Many of the farms with significant scour problems had reduced growth rates of 0.4 - 0.5 kg/day in their calves prior to weaning, while several farms with good calf management were able to achieve the 0.7-0.8 kg/day target growth rates.

Dairy farmer, Herb Masters, Sharpshaw Farm, Nunney, Somerset, has had excellent success with the calf health project.

During the early winter period of 2008, the farm lost a few heifer calves to calf scours with rotavirus and coronavirus being identified as the main causes of the outbreak. "We rear our own Pedigree Friesian replacements, so to lose so many was hugely costly and distressing," says Mr Masters.

In response, Mr Back suggested dry cows be vaccinated with an all-in-one rotavirus, coronavirus and E coli vaccine at drying off. "We also implemented the above changes to managing colostrum and dipping navels with a 10 per cent iodine solution," he says.

These changes began in January for cows due to calve from February onwards and the results have been impressive. "No heifer calves have been lost since February and the farm has saved considerable time and money by not having to treat large numbers of scouring calves."

And the farm has also topped the local calf market with its Friesian bull calves on several occasions, says Mr Masters.

"The picture is now completely different, calves are now thriving and we are seeing improved growth rates which is being recognised by higher bull prices at market."

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