Calf rearing is one of the key, but often overlooked, elements of running a successful dairy herd.
Investing in calf health brings long-term gains, and the use of alternative therapies has proven to be successful in doing just that.
Charlotte Cunningham investigates...
Antibiotic reduction is a hot topic across the industry right now, with pressure on every sector to minimise their usage.
Although levels have reached an all-time low in the UK, there is still work to be done in order to meet the Government’s latest targets.
As a result, preventative and therapeutic strategies are becoming increasingly popular, and are producing some very impressive results.
According to vet Charlie Carslake, essential oils have had great success in promoting health in the poultry sectors.
However, there has been little research into how this treatment can benefit ruminant livestock, meaning dairy farmers are falling behind.
He says: “By helping to stimulate the immune system, and with anti-microbial properties, essential oils can promote cattle health in a very similar way to other animals.”
Mr Carslake works at Applied Bacterial Control (ABC) – a specialist company set up by St David’s Poultry Team which provides solutions to help farmers reduce antibiotic use.
He thinks there has not been enough focus on promoting calf health, which is pivotal for producing strong, healthy replacements for the future milking herd.
“Faster growing animals are far less likely to contract health issues and for every 100g of additional daily liveweight gain in the first two months of life you get 250kg of extra milk in the first lactation.”
To test the efficacy of essential oils on youngstock, Bicton College in Devon took part in trials last year in conjunction with ABC. Farm manager Rob Stoner headed up the trials at the college’s Home Farm and has been impressed with the improvements to this year’s calf crop.
“Historically, the college had always suffered with coccidiosis – caused mainly by high stocking rates,” he says.
“In the past we used a lot of antibiotics to treat sick animals, but coming from an organic background I wanted to implement a more holistic approach focusing on prevention – this made us perfect candidates for the trial.”
The trial began in mid-February, in line with the spring calving system on the farm, and the benefits have been clear – both in terms of antibiotic reduction and animal health.
“The product worked really well for us and gave the calves a good start,” he adds. “Calf mortality is at an all-time low, in fact, we did not lose any this year – we are definitely going to continue with this approach across the whole farm.”
Though there is obviously additional labour requirement when drenching youngstock, it is better than treating sick animals, says Mr Stoner.
“The beauty about prevention is that you are actually doing something to boost the health of an animal – it is great for building immunity and makes you a better herdsperson in general.”
Of course, alternative therapies are not a silver bullet. For best results, they must be used alongside careful management and – should the need arise – there is still a place for antibiotics, he adds.
“A lot of health issues are environmental, so alongside a good system, this type of treatment can work really well.”
Coccidiosis in calves is caused by protozoan parasites called Eimeria spp, which infect the lining of the alimentary tract causing diarrhoea and dysentery.
Outbreaks are most commonly seen in young calves and often occur where there is overstocking and contaminated accommodation.
A randomised control trial carried out at Bicton College’s Home Farm using 43 five-week-old calves split into two groups – treatment and control.
Calves in the control group received a single dose of SoluQox – a drench produced by the Dutch firm Olus Plus comprising of a mixture of essential oils and fatty acids – while a placebo was given to the control group. Otherwise, they were managed identically.
The effectiveness of the treatment was measured over an eight-week period by carrying out weekly faecal samples to assess the coccidiosis burden and regular weighing to calculate daily live weight gain.