Charlie Carslake BVSc MRCVS, Molecare Veterinary Services
Healthy, fast growing calves are fundamental to any dairy herd. Numerous studies are now showing that investing in early life produces a more cost efficient cow in the longer term, largely due to the link between improved growth and associated benefits for reproductive and lactation performance.
Calf health is influenced by numerous factors: Colostrum, feeding, environment, staff time, disease profiles and gut health to name a few. It follows that a combination of approaches is needed to improve calf health and productivity.
Well Farm is a 120 cow, 8000L yielding, autumn calving herd producing milk for Sainsbury’s Cheese group. Over the past six months, farmers Simon and Alice Knox have invested in calf health with great results.
Time dedicated to calf rearing is often a limiting factor achieving better calf performance. An automatic feeder has allowed Simon and Alice more time to focus on prevention, attention to young calves and other improvements.
For example vaccinating cows with a combined Rota, Corana and E.Coli vaccine has improved colostrum quality minimising scours in young calves. The vaccine is given 12 to 3 weeks pre-calving and increases the colostrum levels of antibodies against scour causing viruses and bacteria.
Calf housing has also been an area of focus. Calves are initially housed in individual pens before moving to a specially designed rearing unit composed of airy igloos. A 1 in 20 concrete slope leads to a drain which ensures good drainage and low moisture levels. Easy access means time cleaning out is minimised and shelter is provided for both calves and staff.
Although well established in the poultry sector the use of pre and probiotics to improve gut health is only just gathering momentum in calves. Prebiotics promote beneficial bacteria in the gut whereas probiotics provide beneficial bacteria directly. When given to the new-born calf these beneficial bacteria can prevent harmful pathogens such as E.Coli through competitive exclusion and lactic acid production which improves digestion, prevents scours and increases growth rates.
A prebiotic, available from Applied Bacterial Control, is added to the milk of young calves and then dosed automatically once on the feeder. SoluQox, an essential oil product shown to improve calf growth rates, is given to all calves at 2 weeks of age.
This combination of approaches has meant that calves growth rates are up, disease incidence has reduced, time can be spent more efficiently and antibiotic treatments have been minimised. Importantly replacements have the best possible start on their way to becoming healthy and productive members of the milking herd.