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Calf health: Plan to prevent scours in beef calves

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ADAS recently estimated the cost of a scour outbreak in a 100-cow suckler herd (assuming 90 calves born) to be £5,794*. Consequently, it definitely pays to prevent any infectious calf scours gaining a foothold on any beef unit.

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Winter calf health: Plan to prevent scours in beef calves

One suckler producer putting disease prevention at the heart of his beef production enterprise is ex-dairy farmer Phil Owens from Llettygynfach Farm, near Welshpool, Powys, Wales. Along with his son Edward, he runs 120 spring-calving cows plus 50 heifers, mostly British Blondes and Welsh Black crosses, on 102 hectares (250 acres) of uplands.

 

Phil says: “Our biggest health worry is TB because movement restrictions can have such a big impact on cashflow, but any disease problem quickly leads to financial losses. “We have also faced challenges adapting a farm which was geared up for milk production into a beef unit. But as far as is humanly possible, disease prevention simply has to be our aim.”

 

Consequently, Phil invests in a proactive and close working relationship with his vet Oli Hodgkinson from Trefaldwyn Vets, Montgomery. Phil says: “In the past, we struggled with young calf health issues and suffered a particularly severe cryptosporidiosis problem three years ago. “It seemed like the whole farm was contaminated with the parasitic oocysts which cause calves to scour, but Oli helped us overcome the problem.

 

“Thanks to his advice we have been reaping the dividends of a more preventative disease management approach ever since.” Oli points out an infectious dose of the cryptosporidium parvum parasite can be as few as five oocysts, but at the peak of a disease outbreak, an infected animal may shed as many as 10 billion oocysts in its faeces in the space of seven-10 days2*.


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These oocysts can thrive in a damp environment inside buildings and on grass, and young calves between two and 10 days of age are particularly susceptible. Oli says: “What we had to do was break the infection cycle through good animal management and sound hygiene procedures.”

 

Calves are now born inside between March and May into as clean an environment as possible, before being turned out in small 21-day age range groups onto different fields.

 

“The key is to limit the oocyst challenge to very young calves. We know older calves develop good immunity to the parasite and, therefore, become resistant to subsequent infection.

 

“Using this ‘Sand Hills’ system ensures older immune calves cannot infect susceptible younger calves.”

 

Phil is also a committed vaccinator against a range of diseases to boost the immunity of his cattle. For example, vaccinating cows pre-calving to boost the antibodies in cow colostrum against rotavirus, coronavirus and E.coli K99.

 

Spring-born calves then benefit by drinking this fortified colostrum in the first few days of life. He also vaccinates both cows and heifers against BVD and leptospirosis. Calves also get a broad-spectrum vaccine course against clostridial diseases when they are disbudded and another against pneumonia in August before they are housed for their first winter.

 

Oli says: “The ADAS study showed the potential cost saving in a 100-cow suckler herd of preventing a calf scour outbreak by vaccinating cows pre-calving was more than £4,000. This is a pretty healthy financial benefit.

 

Calf health checklist

 

"Depending on your system, vaccination plays an important role in managing many disease threats. “The key is to methodically work through the particular challenges on any given farm, using a calf health checklist, for example, to identify the livestock management strengths and weaknesses. Then you can implement the optimum health plan.”

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