Calf rearing involves a complex combination of processes and no two units are the same; even within a single calf unit, some calves will face different management challenges to others.
Vets with a keen interest in youngstock health are taking a consultative-based checklist approach to assessing and improving calf rearing efficiency.
Vet Sarah Gibbs from Lambert, Leonard and May (LLM), near Whitchurch, Shropshire, says: “Having a clear checklist of key areas to audit before you go on-farm ensures nothing is forgotten during a consultation.
“Invariably, calf performance problems are the result of multiple factors, so it is key to always take a holistic approach and consider everything going on at a rearing unit."
She says although a calf health investigation may be initiated for one reason – for example, high rates of scour – a number of factors could contribute to the ‘front of mind’ issue. Taking a methodical approach ensures all important areas are explored.
She says: “When you first visit a farm to investigate a calf health issue, I think it is really important to start by asking the farmer what the main concerns are and what they would like to achieve.
“Having this recorded means you ensure these needs are addressed as you move on through your investigation.”
When Richard Blackburn of Baddiley Hulse Farm, near Nantwich, Cheshire, first asked vet Sarah Gibbs for help with calf health issues last spring, his key concerns were variable growth rates and too many scour-related losses in the first seven to 10 days of life.
Mr Blackburn says: “When Sarah first came out to investigate, she took a very methodical approach, which I and Jack Howell, who is in charge of calf rearing, found really useful. Following this visit, we received a calf health report, which listed some key recommendations.”
Miss Gibbs says: “Working through a checklist certainly highlighted a few areas we could improve on.
“The first suggestion was to move calves out of the calving yard and into individual hutches as quickly as possible to promote a cleaner environment for newborn calves. Generally, Richard’s housing is very good and age groups are managed well to avoid older calves being in contact with younger ones.
“However, it is important to make sure calf hutches are cleaned out after every calf. Pressure- washing inside walls will remove faecal contamination and reduce the chance for scour bugs to be passed onto the next calf.”
Miss Gibbs also investigated a possible colostrum quality issue: “Colostrum quality reduces as time progresses after calving and bacterial contamination can block absorption of antibodies in the gut, which is why it is important to collect colostrum as quickly and cleanly after calving as possible.
“Initial tests showed on the whole, colostrum collected was of good quality, but the bacterial count was a little high, so we suggested steps to improve cleanliness.”
Mr Blackburn now feeds newborn calves four litres of colostrum before they are six hours old. Any excess colostrum is frozen and thawed gently before administering cleanly to calves via ‘perfect udder’ colostrum bags.
Miss Gibbs says: “When we first tested for adequate colostrum transfer, most calves were below the serum protein target, making them susceptible to disease.
“We aim to have 80% of calves above 5.5g/dl and we are achieving this on Richard’s farm, suggesting good transfer of immunity and colostrum management.” Miss Gibbs also ran Mr Blackburn’s calf feeding rates through LLM’s own calf powder calculator, which identified his feeding rate at the time would only support 0.5-0.6kg of growth per day, even allowing for calf jackets.
She says: “When we first visited, the feeding rate was 2.4 litres of calf milk replacer twice-a-day [4.8 litres in total]. It needed to be nearer six litres per day to support the 0.8kg per day target growth rate. This has now been adjusted and calves are growing consistently well again.”
Mr Blackburn says: “Some farmers look at vets and see cost, but I see my relationship with LLM as an investment. Staff are always pro-active and looking to innovate.
“LLM’s VetTech Service is a time saver, particularly with calves, and time is money. They check colostrum, measure growth rates, ensure vaccination protocols are followed and put in temperature monitoring tags. Scour problems are under control, calf mortality is next to nothing and if we have a dead calf there is an investigation. We are also getting a much better price for beef calves.”
Working with a number of vets experienced in investigating youngstock disease management issues, MSD Animal Health has developed an interactive calf health checklist tool to help map out workable action plans to improve the situation on any farm.
MSD Animal Health veterinary adviser Kat Baxter says: “Our tool explores and records calf health performance across five core areas to help identify strengths and weaknesses of any rearing unit’s environment and processes. “Working through a series of 10 questions within each area, designed to tease out where a rearing unit is in terms of accepted best management practice, allows vet and farmer clients to quickly pinpoint areas needing attention.
“Repeating every six or 12 months is a way to keep on track, allowing both parties to monitor progress against agreed targets.”
1) Set goals and measure
2) Implement good colostrum management and feeding protocols
3) Feed calves correctly
4) Maintain low infection pressure and vaccinate
5) Ensure a healthy rearing environment