Hrvoje from Blarney Vets came into the shed. I walked towards him with a heavy heart. “Hrvoje, I can’t believe this is happening. Here I am in this beautiful new shed and I have sick calves.” Hrvoje said,“Katherine, scour doesn’t care whether you have an old or a new shed.” It was a comment that stalled my panic. We had built the new shed. The calves were in excellent facilities. Hygiene was pretty top class. Cows had been vaccinated for rota virus. We were really on the ball with early feeding of good quality colostrum. I had more time having retired from school. I had a new farm apprentice, Sinead, and Luke, part-time, working with me. I was queen of my castle and everything was going according to plan, until it wasn’t.

The shed

The shed was fitted out by O’Donovan Engineering Ltd from Coachford. The lower gates and small access gates are a dream to manage. They lock automatically. There are eight pens; each has a dry bed area and a section in front where feeding takes place and meals and water are located. In the early weeks, this was swept daily. Pens one to four house the dairy replacement heifers. Pens five and six are reception pens for the new calves born.

They are redistributed to dairy or beef from there. Pens seven and eight contain the beef Angus stock and Friesian bulls. Sexed semen has worked really well resulting in only a handful of dairy bulls. We have two JFC Evolution S4 automatic calf feeders.

One of my gorgeous girls looked at me with sad dehydrated eyes and wobbled when she got up

So, it was a big system change. The automatic feeder is a brilliant machine, removing a lot of hard labour lifting buckets. But there is no reduction in the time feeding calves in the early weeks. As the cows are vaccinated, we feed milk for at least seven days. Then each calf moves to milk replacer and is trained to the automatic feeder. It is easy work but it takes time. Each calf has to be followed up for a few days, making sure it feeds. So, with compact calving, there are a lot of calves needing training at the same time.

Traffic light system

On the positive side, the machine is monitoring every calf with a traffic light system. You can see what each one is drinking and has drank since going on the feeder. There is a bar chart available on the touch screen that is invaluable when things go awry. In six weeks, 90% of our cows calved. We also bring home the dairy heifers from the leased farm once they can be transferred. I had 150 calves in the shed.

Getting through it

The weather has been miserable for grazing and treacherous for young calves. Anecdotally, I hear that a lot of farmers have outbreaks of scour. One morning, after a particularly miserable night, I came into the shed and that dreaded heavy scour smell assaulted my nostrils. I could not believe it. Ten calves were sick so the electrolyte parade began between feeds. In general, they recovered in 48 hours. That morning when I called Blarney Vets, one of my gorgeous girls looked at me with sad dehydrated eyes and wobbled when she got up. I knew she was gone beyond my capabilities of bringing her back. Hrvoje put her on the drip. I can’t remember if we’ve ever had a calf on the drip before. In two hours, her eyes were bright and she was on the road to recovery. In total over a two-week period, we probably treated 30 calves throughout the shed. I lost one small heifer calf.

The automatic feeder was a great help in spotting the calves that were sickening before they had symptoms. Interestingly, it also showed that many more calves across the shed had depressed performance. I thought the passage area in front of the dry beds was too wet and a vector for infection so we’ve bedded that also. Colm got timbers to keep the straw back from the drain.

A scour outbreak is a curse. I estimate that it has cost €500 in treatment and electrolyte. Time is another issue. If it happens, there is only one thing to do and that is to manage it and know that you will get through it. After two weeks of added pressure, we are back on track and the calves are frolicking around again.

Read more

Meet the Maker: Janni Sjostrand

Free Land Report magazine inside this week’s paper