The Slieve Bloom Veterinary team in Co Offaly are just getting started with calving in the dairy herd at the moment. Calving is the busiest time in our business, with day and night duty becoming the norm for the next few months. A lot of farmers and vets are facing into a few months of limited sleep and no time off. Keeping calves healthy is vital to maintain a quality of life for farmers.

Calf disease is as a result of either too many challenges from particular bugs or when an immune system is not in a position to prevent a disease developing. Calves that are born in a clean environment with minimal stress will consume more colostrum and develop a more competent immune system, thus will be in a better position to resist disease challenges.

1 Cow condition and dry cow management

Have the cow ready and in the right condition to calve – not too fat and not too thin. Make sure cows are getting enough energy and protein in the diet. As the cow gets closer to calving, her food intake decreases and we need to remember to maintain the amount of energy that is required to allow her to calve.

A certain level of protein in the diet is required to produce the necessary antibodies in colostrum. Minerals are particularly important in the prevention of milk fever, which can result in slow calvings.

Make sure any relevant anti-scour vaccines are done in time, as vaccination will increase the level of antibodies in colostrum, thereby increasing the calf’s ability to fight scour.

2 Have facilities ready

Have calving pens clean and well bedded, with a plan for regular cleaning out. Discuss with your vet the best option for calving facilities – ideally the cow should move to the calving pen before she starts calving, as movement during calving will delay progress.

It’s important to have gloves and lube ready, along with suitable restraints, if the cow needs help at calving. A calving gate is an essential piece of kit for any farm that has cows calving. The gate should leave the left side of the cow exposed in case a caesarean is necessary, but also in case the cow needs assistance, as this is a more natural position for right-handed operators.

A gate facing the other direction may be easier for left-handed operators. Access to hot water is essential for hygiene.

3 Newborn calf management

On a dairy farm, remove the calf from the cow as soon as possible and feed with colostrum.

Feed at a rate of 8% of bodyweight of the calf from their own mother within three hours. That means a 40kg calf should get 2l. Ideally, feed with a bottle and teat. Use a stomach tube if needed.

Removing the calf before it attempts to suckle on its own will significantly reduce the amount of dirt or faeces consumed by the calf before they get colostrum. We know that the calf usually gets up and works its way from the brisket along the belly of the cow until they eventually find the teat to suck colostrum. This means that the calf has consumed an amount of faecal material containing disease-causing bacteria before they get the antibodies from the colostrum.

There are a number of methods you can use to check if the colostrum is of suitable quality and calves can also be blood tested to assess the transfer of antibodies from the colostrum.

As farms are getting bigger, with many more staff working in the calving area, setting up standard protocols can be very useful.

4 Calf housing and pens

Move the calves to individual pens until they are drinking well. Ideally, they should spend two weeks in individual pens.

Remember, hygiene is important at all times, as scour is basically spread through dung being consumed by the calf. So pens and feeding utensils should be clean and disinfected.

Cow and calf coat should be clean at all times, as grooming and licking is an issue with contamination. The benefit of individual pens is that they avoid cross-contamination from calf to calf, and also serves to isolate any calves that may develop disease.

A calf that develops cryptosporidium scour will shed millions more crypto bugs than it originally consumes, thus infecting animals it is in contact with. Calf jackets are a really useful aid in treating sick calves. They keep the critical temperature up, which is important, especially in scouring calves.

5 Investigate any issues

Investigate any issues and address them early. Consult your vet during this process. Scour and pneumonia are the two most common issues we see in young calves. Any cases should be isolated as soon as possible, before they spread infection. Treatment started early is more likely to be successful and less expensive.

Identifying the different disease-causing agents will allow control measures to be put in place. In some cases, this will come in the form of a medication such as a vaccine, preventative medicine or treatment, but often times it will be a change in management practices to reduce the impact of the disease.

2020 lessons

Throughout 2020, we all became much more aware of the threat of infectious disease and realised the importance of reducing the level of infection within the environment, as well as reducing risk factors for disease, which in the calf’s case could be poor colostrum management, concurrent disease, cold drafty sheds or underlying wet conditions.

We are all in this together and every problem can at least be reduced with the appropriate interventions.

I consistently see rewards when the team work well together. I would always say one should use their vet for advice, preventing issues occurring, as well as responding to problems.

The vet’s role in treating sick animals cannot be underestimated. However, while we are treating sick animals, we all need to consider how we best work to prevent the recurrence of disease in other animals on the farm.