It’s that wonderful, exciting time of our dairy farming year! Anticipation is high as we prepare for the birth of the 2023 calves and cows back milking. They will be the replacement heifers that will calve down themselves in just two years from now. They represent the continuation of the herd and further improvement in the quality of the animals as the EBI (Economic Breeding Index) continues to rise. When I get too carried away with my demands for the baby calves, I’m reminded that replacement heifers can be bought in! That would put me out of my favourite job! Nevertheless, we’re in for a tough six weeks. It’s really important to be in the right mind set. Get ready, if you haven’t already. Make sure the pens are clean and bedded because once those calves start to arrive there is no time for preparation. Make sure all the calf rearing equipment is clean and to hand.

Open to learning

We can always learn more about our job, no matter what it is. There is always new science that debunks old practices and makes one realise that maybe things could be done better. Research teaches us that a heifer won’t reach her full production potential if she has an episode of scour, pneumonia or any illness during her first year. It makes common sense. An animal that is fighting a virus or infection is losing ground on the group. Consequently, she ends up not meeting her targets. Keeping that bunch of heifers even and thrifty requires attention to all the details.

At this time of year, it is valuable to remind ourselves of the key elements of calf rearing. To do this I attended the Teagasc and Animal Health Ireland, Calf Care Event, Back to Basics, in association with the Dairy Co-ops and Volac . The event was held on the farm of William Healy which is just 15 minutes away from us. Another few are being held around the country and they really are an ideal refresher course for the season ahead.

I also attended the Zoom event organised by Dairy Women Ireland called Preparing for the Calf Season. The ideal thing about this one is that if you are a member you can listen back to the Zoom at your leisure. Lastly I listened to The Dairy Edge podcast with George Ramsbottom and Emer Kennedy on feeding guidelines for young calves. All were great refreshers and I feel better equipped as a result.

The baiscs

Calves are born utterly naive. They receive no antibodies from the dam while they are in the uterus. Therefore, it is really important that they are born into a clean environment and get colostrum ASAP. Across the board, the events I attended stressed that colostrum is king! It is a superfood. One facilitator asked “how much is a dose of colostrum worth if you could buy it from another farmer?” The answer; “the price of the calf!” Now, that encapsulates just how important colostrum is to the new born calf. The development of the immune system happens when the calf absorbs the antibodies from the colostrum. The guidelines for feeding colostrum are well established as the 1,2,3, rule. The first colostrum taken from the cow, fed to the calf within two hours and the amount required is 3 litres (8.5% of the calf’s birth weight). One vet asked “why would you stop at 3 litres if the calf is still drinking?” So don’t stop if you can spare it.

As the calf is naive, it is critical that the colostrum is collected as hygienically as possible from a clean udder and into clean utensils. The calf rearer should also have clean gloves for feeding the calf. One interesting point made was that some of the antibody protection in the colostrum will go to neutralising the bacteria introduced if there are dirty conditions rather than it all going to building the immunity of the calf. A Brix refractometer can be used to assess the quality of the colostrum. It should be over 22% to be adequate for the calf. We test every cow’s milk and occasionally you will find a cow with a lower reading. Incidentally, I find that heifers can have just as good readings as cows.

A stress free environment is critical. The calf needs to be warm, on a dry, draught free bed, well fed with adequate space and ad-lib fresh water.

Best of luck everyone and do mind yourselves too.

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