Improvements in the calf rearing period can have an impact on health during the rearing period but also on milk production later down the line as Rebecca Jordan found out when visiting a dairy unit in Dorset.
In a bid to improve overall performance of the 280-cow herd, John Baggs took the decision four years ago to turn his attention to calf management.
For Mr Baggs concentrating on colostrum intake and the timing of calves leaving the calving shed resulted in an immediate 80 per cent reduction in the incidence of scour.
Improvements at Wroget Manor Farm, just outside Wareham, Dorset, have also included improvements to housing conditions and the introduction of ear tags which independently read each calf’s body temperature. These changes have improved target calf growth rates by at least 200g/day.
Stores now achieve point of sale six months earlier than before and heifers calve down two months earlier at 26-months old. This, says Mr Baggs is all the direct result of easy, early and quick intervention if and when respiratory disease arises.
However, the most significant improvement is only now just visible as calves which have experienced all the improvements in management throughout their early life-time enter the herd: here the best young cows are producing up to six litres a day more at peak lactation than was seen in the previous cohorts. It is calculated they will manage 500-1000litres extra every lactation thereafter.
“What we now do pre-weaning has a huge impact on the whole life of each animal,” says Mr Baggs who is the third generation to farm the 324ha (800-acres) in partnership with brothers Ian and Edward, parents Andy and Nicola as well as uncle Frank and cousins Mark and Michael.
“Avoiding scour and respiratory problems means calves keep growing with no checks to their growth rates and enter the herd in the best possible condition. At the same time we have reduced our reliance on antibiotics by 25 per cent in the past two years which is increasingly important.”
Calves are now removed as quickly as possible from the calving shed to reduce the time they are exposed to potential infection from the environment and other cows.
They are penned in groups of five in straw-bedded pens which are well ventilated and have immediate access to fresh water and ad lib 18 per cent protein starter pellets.
“Every calf receives three litres of colostrum within the first three hours of life. Within 12 hours each calf has another three litres of high quality protein colostrum,” explains Mr Baggs. “Colostrum is collected from freshly-calved cows in the parlour and is tested with a brix refractometer.
The target is for readings to be more than 19 per cent on the Brix scale for the first feed and 15-18 per cent for the second feed. Only this quality is frozen into three-litre batches.
“Previously we were leaving calves on the cows for up to two days. Not only did this expose them to potential disease for longer but we were not able to monitor the exact quantity of colostrum each calf received. And that colostrum was poorer quality because it was not as concentrated once the cow’s milk started to come through.”
Mr Baggs worked in conjunction with his vet along with support from the Calfmatters programme, which is an expert resource on all aspects of calf health from colostrum to scours and pneumonia to pain management.
He says it would be ‘no exaggeration’ to say they have noticed an 80 per cent drop in scouring. “As a result fewer calves lose their appetite and suffer gut damage thereby dropping weight and more have stronger resilience to future bacterial and viral exposure.”
Having ensured calves were removed from potential diseases in the calving shed, it was important a high standard of hygiene was maintained in the calf shed.
Here there are no concrete floors to disinfect so Mr Baggs relies on deep straw bedding and a base of fresh clean sand once pens are cleaned out and left empty for as long as possible.
“Even when straw is so dear we do not scrimp on it. The cost of losing a calf to disease because of poor hygiene far outweighs the price of straw,” says Mr Baggs.
Ventilation has also been under scrutiny. Internal block partitioning was taken out with pens now divided by aluminium gates. Two courses of blocks have been removed from the top of the shed’s walls to improve airflow and a £1,600 positive pressure ventilation system installed.
“The latter removes stale air and maintains a constant air flow without creating a draught, often a contributing factor in increasing susceptibility to disease. Removing the block work was the cheapest and most effective way to let a lot more air into the building,” says Mr Baggs.
FeverTags have been trialled at Wrogret Manor for four years now. They go in when the calf is between a week and 10-days old and taken out at weaning.
A slender probe-like thermometer rests in the ear canal and reads the calf’s body temperature. When the temperature is raised a red light flashes on the face of the tag.
It is powered by a small lithium battery and the tags are reused when taken out at weaning. They retail at about £15 each.
“They are the most significant aid to managing respiratory problems,” says John. “
If a tag should start flashing we know that calf has a temperature. We then monitor it for about six hours. Over that period the calf’s immune system often overcomes any infection.
"If it doesn’t we might choose to inject the calf with an anti-inflammatory, which will help keep the calf content so it continues to feed and thereby stays hydrated and has the strength to deal with infection without the intervention of antibiotics.
“In some cases – and this scenario has dropped by 25 per cent in the past two years - the infection takes hold and we will administer an antibiotic for bovine respiratory disease.
By this stage we are very confident we have full justification in using an antibiotic, rather than just injecting any calf that does not look right ‘just in case’.
Calves are penned in groups of five and straw bedded.
“Obviously good stockmanship is still vital but these tags buy us time to make the right decision.
"That way we are not chasing calves round a pen trying to catch one to take its temperature as soon as it looks off colour. That means there is no stress to both the sick calf and the others in the pen.”
Although it is impossible to measure the true level of respiratory disease in the calf shed all the above measures have gone a long way to improve calf health and growth rates.
At the same time Mr Baggs has chosen to increase milk intake for the calves. This has increased from 600g/day to an average 1kg/day of a 26 per cent protein, 17 per cent fat content milk powder.
“I do not see that increase as an extra cost; I view it as an investment,” say Mr Baggs.
“Calf growth rate has gone from between 550g and 600g/day to an average 800g/day with best calves achieving 1kg/day pre-weaning.”
Calves are weaned off milk when 10-weeks old. Heifers and both Holstein Friesian and Hereford cross steers run together and are offered an 18 per cent protein concentrate ad lib before transferring at four-months old to a forage-based diet and 2kg/day of the same concentrate.
A majority are marketed between 12 and 14 months of age at 400kg and are sold direct to an approved finishing unit (AFU) as the farm is under TB restriction.
A Hereford bull has been used on 26-month old heifers currently entering the herd; otherwise up to four Holstein Friesian bulls run with older cows resulting in year-round calving and a calving index of 375.
“It is not unusual for some cows to calve twice a year here,” says John.
“We find it so convenient buying in Holstein Friesian bulls: we do not need to worry about heat detection or AI’ing them. With the help of our nutritionist and vet we look at farms with similar yields and systems and then buy a bull calf bred from the best cows.”
The herd currently comprises 30 per cent heifers to allow for a cull of cows with Johnes, chronic cell counts and poor udder conformation.
“Because of our TB status the herd is closed so we cannot buy in stock and have therefore taken the opportunity to breed our own replacements and improve the herd”, says Mr Baggs.
Cows are housed from November to the beginning of March and fed to yield both by in-parlour and out-of-parlour feeders. Both grass and maize silage is available.
The quest to improve calf health and hence the herd’s performance in the parlour starts at drying off.
Three weeks pre-calving cows move onto a transition diet of maize silage and straw and 3kg of 26 per cent protein concentrate. Those at a high risk of milk fever are given a bolus post calving.
“We are trying to make sure we give our cows the best possible start to their lives so they can go on and be at peak condition when they themselves calve down and start milking,” says Mr Baggs.
“We are starting to see the benefits of that attention to detail and I am pretty sure it will result in these cows maintaining a higher level of performance in the herd for a longer time which is obviously another cost benefit.”