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Dairy special: Attention to detail benefits health in the calf shed

Meticulous hygiene, a refreshed calf housing strategy and a focus on colostrum has enabled one dairy to reduce antibiotic use, minimise scours and boost growth rates by 340g/day, as Aly Balsom reports.

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Dairy special: Attention to detail benefits health in the calf shed

When it comes to hygiene in the calf shed, Jackie Monckton is meticulous.


Every teat is rinsed with hot water between pens and all the uprights and walls are scrubbed and disinfected using a watering can after groups leave the shed.


The farm team also has it drilled into them that any steam cleaning of gates and feeding equipment must be done outside and at the furthest point the hose allows away from the youngest calves in the shed.


By moving it outside, it prevents a hot, steamy environment in the building, which had previously always led to a pneumonia outbreak a few days later.


Mrs Monckton says: “The steam rises and comes down in what I call the droplet effect, which is a no no.”


Mrs Monckton is the calf rearer at Hanford Farms, Hanford, Dorset, where her husband Martin is farm manager.


Having started working with the calves in 2015, one of the first things she did was sign up to Friars Moor Vets’ youngstock discussion group and start recording and benchmarking disease rates. She also worked with vets Julian Allen and Jenny Bellini to revise management protocols.




Her efforts have paid off, with pneumonia incidence now at 15 per cent, leading to a 72 per cent reduction in antibiotic use.


The total number of antibiotic courses per animal have also reduced from 0.85 courses to 0.11.


Scours – predominately due to cryptosporidiosis and rotavirus – are also down and pre-weaning mortality almost eliminated.


Some of the areas that have been improved include ventilation, vaccination, cleanliness, milk preparation and recording and colostrum.


Poor ventilation – particularly when the shed was full – was something Mrs Monckton noticed as soon as she started at Hanford Farms, and was confirmed by a smoke bomb test by Mr Allen, which showed that air had nowhere to escape.

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Consequently, metal sheeting at one end of the shed was removed and replaced with space boarding.


Roller sheets were also installed on one side. The roof ridge was opened and two positive pressure ventilation tubes installed, which deliver fresh air down the length of the shed.


Mrs Monckton says: “The difference was clear from day one. The air was so much fresher.”


Calves now receive an intranasal vaccination against pneumonia at nine days and 12 weeks old – just before they move to the next shed.


This second vaccination helps them deal better with environmental challenges in the post-weaning building.


Prior to general improvements, the move at weaning commonly resulted in pneumonia problems in heifers with chronic disease.


Having initially battled with cryptosporidiosis issues, in 2015 the team decided the only way to break the cycle was to completely destock, clean and rest the calf shed for six weeks and then disinfect before restocking.




Since then, cleanliness has been top of the list of priorities, together with continuing to use a cryptosporidiosis-specific disinfectant.


Now, as soon as calves are moved out of the shed at weaning, their run of pens will be cleaned, scraped, washed and scrubbed with cold water and detergent and left to dry.

Disinfectant is then applied prior to new calves occupying that section.


Heifer calves are now housed in pens of five, with parlour boarding attached to hurdles between pens.


This prevents nose-to-nose touching and stops disease spread, should a problem occur. A different milk feeder is used on different rows of calves to reduce risk of disease spread.


Only three of the four rows of pens in the shed will be filled with calves at one time to allow one run to be fully cleaned and rested.


Mrs Monckton has developed a dedicated ‘calf kitchen’ for milk preparation and recording. A whiteboard was one of her first additions.


“That is essential. You cannot operate without that,” she says.


The board is used to record every animal born, date of birth, dam and eartag. A treatment book also includes various bits of information including any problems and treatments.


A 300-litre water boiler has proved a useful addition, providing a constant supply of hot water for cleaning milk feeding equipment.


There is also a lockable medicine cabinet and freezer for storing colostrum. Laminated treatment protocols are also stuck to the wall.


All colostrum is now tested using a colostrometer. Mrs Monckton ensures all colostrum is collected in clean buckets, which are labelled with dam number, as all calves receive their own dam’s colostrum for five feeds.




The colostrometer is predominately used to establish a feeding regime.


If a cow’s colostrum tests red/low quality, its calf will subsequently be fed it for longer.


Only quality colostrum from a known, select number of cows that test green on the colostrometer will be frozen. This will be used to feed calves from dams that may have been challenged – maybe by having twins.


In general, the aim is to feed calves 10 per cent of their body weight as soon as possible – usually within four hours.

Timing is one of the main challenges on-farm, as if a calf is born at night, it could be 10 hours before it gets its first feed. Mrs Monckton has noticed that colostrum quality deteriorates the longer the gap between calving and first milking.


She feels attention to colostrum has helped with overall disease levels.


Weekly blood protein testing by the vets also show that most calves are receiving sufficient colostrum, although there is some variability.


Mrs Monckton says: “I felt if we could get the colostrum management right and the Qs – get it in to them at the right time [quickly] and the right quality – the scours would drop and overall calf health would improve in the first three weeks, where the calf relies on colostral protection.


That is what we have found. The key is doing the same routine every time, for every calf.”


Lower pneumonia incidence also means antibiotic use is less, while better overall immune status means if calves do need to be treated for pneumonia, they respond better, resulting in shorter treatment requirements and less relapses.


Mrs Monckton adds: “I do not like treating calves. And if you do things right from the start, there should be little or no need to treat.”

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