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Improving beef calf survival - what you need to know

Data on beef calf survival is limited, however Defra statistics (2008) indicate that 7.7 per cent of registered beef calves die before reaching six months of age. Farmers Guardian reports.


Difficult calving, poor colostrum or milk provision, illness and infectious disease are all important factors which influence calf mortality rates.


Veterinary surgeon Dr Sophia Hepple, who works as a veterinary adviser for farmed animal welfare in the public sector, recently completed a Nuffield Scholarship, funded by AHDB Beef and Lamb, looking at beef calf survival.


The project aimed to find ways of improving calf survival in the beef sector by understanding the attitudes of beef producers to calf-rearing practices and how they seek advice, including their approach to data recording. This involved interviewing producers in the UK, Serbia, Australia, New Zealand and Colombia. She also evaluated sources of information on calf survival, both in the UK and in other countries, along with key influences on calf management.


Dr Hepple says: “Data evaluated from the project showed age or condition of the dam did not have a significant effect on calf mortality. However, male calves were more likely to die before six months of age than females.


"One explanation for this is that male calves are usually heavier than female calves at birth, therefore the risk of calving difficulties is higher. This can impact not only on perinatal death but also on future viability, due to the impact of lack of sufficient colostrum intake soon after birth and/or injuries sustained during birth.”


The Farm Animal Welfare Committee (FAWC) recommends farmers should ensure calves receive at least three litres of high-quality, first-drawn colostrum ideally within the first two hours after birth, but definitely within the first six hours. A further three litres should be given six to 12 hours after birth. For a suckled calf to consume this quantity of colostrum, it must be seen to vigorously suckle its mother for 20 minutes.


More than 80 per cent of producers interviewed said they had provided colostrum (or colostrum replacer) to at least one calf after birth. This ranged from very few calves to every single calf born. However, very few farmers kept records associated with this against the calf record.


Colostrum contains protective antibodies, also called immunoglobulins, which help calves fight disease and deliver high levels of performance. The specific antibody in colostrum is called immunoglobulin G (IgG).


Dr Hepple says: “A calf should preferably receive good-quality colostrum [more than 50g of IgG per litre] from dams reared at the location where the calves are born.


“This ensures the antibodies produced in the dam’s colostrum relate to the specific diseases the calf will be exposed to on that particular farm.


“Colostrum replacers containing an IgG concentration more than 170g per litre can provide sufficient immunoglobulins to achieve good passive transfer. However, although colostrum replacers are getting better, they are not ideal because they may not specifically target the diseases present on-farm.”


Vaccinating dams against enteric, disease-causing organisms such as E.coli and rotavirus is likely to improve colostrum quality and protect against common enteric diseases which the calf is likely to be exposed to in its first weeks of life.


When feeding calves colostrum, about two-thirds of producers who provided an opinion said they would prefer to administer the colostrum via teat rather than tube. Research has shown the method of colostrum delivery has no effect on immunoglobulin transfer.


Dr Hepple says: “It is recommended colostrum is provided by teat as this is the most risk-free way of ensuring maximum colostrum intake to appetite. It also provides a good opportunity to assess a calf’s vigour and its likely need for further intervention. However, if time and resources are limited and using a tube is the only way to ensure adequate colostrum transfer to the calf, then the benefit of tube feeding may outweigh the risks.”


Hygiene at calving is key to ensuring healthy, viable calves. While colostrum is key to protection against infections in the early weeks, overwhelming exposure to disease will result in morbidity and mortality.


For example, cryptosporidiosis and coccidiosis in calves can be associated with the build-up of disease in constantly used buildings.


Buildings should be thoroughly cleaned out, disinfected and freshly bedded before cows come indoors prior to calving. Where possible, individual calving pens should be set up, enabling regular cleaning and disinfection between calvings, as well as supporting dam/calf bonding and early monitoring of the calf in the first few days.



Responses to the interview showed that minimal record-keeping relating to calves is carried out, which means there is very little opportunity to monitor and make changes while calves are being reared.


Dr Hepple says: “While treatment and mortality records are a legal requirement for all farmed animals in the UK, it is also useful to record calf weights, any intervention [including colostrum provision at birth], assisted calvings and disease events.
“These records can help decision-making, for example when considering disease control, vaccine use and heifer-replacement selection.”



A webinar by Dr Hepple on improving calf survival is available on the AHDB Beef and Lamb YouTube channel,

. For more information on calving, see the BRP+ document Minimising Calving Difficulties, available at

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