A health plan is a must on all farms and dairy-beef systems are no different. Farmers should keep themselves familiar with the plan and it needs to adapt and change over time as the farm changes and new issues are encountered

1 Consult your vet

First and foremost, consult your local vet when coming up with a health plan for your farm. They are the experts in this area and will be able to guide you through the process, ensuring nothing is overlooked along the way.

Consider all issues that have occurred on farm over the past number of years and try to incorporate preventative measures to minimise or avoid these issues in the future. What went wrong last year? Did you lose any calf along the way? Was thrive poorer than expected in any period that wasn’t caused by under-nutrition?

Every year will throw up a new issue or challenge. This is why a health plan needs to be a living breathing document, not something that is finalised and placed in a dark cupboard for no one to see.

Where farmers are just starting out with dairy-beef systems, talking to neighbours or friends can be a good idea to learn from their experiences. Break down the entire system into the relevant periods and tackle each one individually.

2 Calf-rearing phase

The calf-rearing phase is probably the busiest and most costly period on the farm in terms of health. This is because the rearing phase is the period with the greatest risk of mortality.

Therefore a good start to life on the rearing farm will go a long way to setting stock up for the entire production system. Things to consider here include:

Pneumonia – the single biggest cause of death in the calf-rearing shed. While ideally calves would be vaccinated prior to moving from one farm to another, in reality this is not going to happen.

Put a vaccination programme in place to reduce the risk of an outbreak on farm. Vaccination will never be a substitute for good hygiene levels, adequate housing facilities and sufficient nutrition to the rearing calf.

Depending on the product you use, this could be a one- or two-dose protocol. On the demonstration farm, calves are vaccinated against RSV and Pi3 pneumonia strains 48 hours after arrival on farm. No vaccine will work on a stressed calf and so the first two days the calf is left alone to settle into its new surroundings and get used to the new feeding regime.

Clostridial diseases – all calves receive a clostridial vaccination from once they are a month old. It is important to remember adequate immunity is not reached until the booster shot has been given one month later.

Disbudding – depending on breed, calves may need to be disbudded. Use a local anaesthetic when disbudding as well as an antiseptic spray afterwards. Do not administer any vaccine at the same time as the stress of disbudding will reduce the effectiveness of the vaccine.

3 First season at grass

The main health issues for most of the first grazing season are worms and hoose. Dairy-beef animals are at greater risk than suckler-bred calves in the first season at grass as more of their diet comes from grazed grass.

For hoose, a good indication as to whether or not calves are affected is to run them from one paddock to the next. If calves are coughing after a short burst of exercise, they will require a dose.

On the demonstration farm, calves received two worm doses during the first grazing season last year.

Castration – castration of male calves should be carried out well in advance of the housing period for winter. Consult your vet about the best method of castration. This is a stress factor for calves and so other interventions around this time should be avoided. Make sure the weather is favourable and keep calves in good grass at all times to minimise stress.

Pneumonia – a booster vaccine may be needed ahead of housing or where calves have not been vaccinated against IBR it should be considered. Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s protocol closely to maximise the level of coverage.

4 Winter period

Faecal egg tests can be carried out a few weeks after housing to see what worm burdens are present in weanlings. Some farms will need to consider a fluke dose as well depending on farm type and location.

Lice treatment will be needed and should be done three weeks after housing. Clipping backs and tails of cattle will help keep them clean and make application of any pour-on simpler.

Prior to turnout remember to give cattle a booster vaccination against clostridial diseases.

5 Second grazing season/ finishing period

By the second season at grass stock should have built up an immunity to worms. Prior to the start of the finishing phase a dose for fluke and worms may be necessary on some farms. A faecal egg test should be carried out to determine whether or not this is required. For any treatments to cattle in the months prior to slaughter, pay close attention to withdrawal periods on any products used.