The more care you give to young animals, the less replacements you will need and the more money you will make, renowned Dutch vet and owner of the CowSignals training company, Joep Driessen, told attendees at the Fane Valley calf health conference last Thursday.

With research showing heifers that calve in at 23 months have the highest lifetime production, he said this is easily achievable as long as “you don’t let them get sick”. The aim he said should be to average five lactations per cow. In the Netherlands the top 1% of herds are getting 50,000l per cow of lifetime yield.

During his presentation Driessen focused mainly on issues in and around calving. His advice is to keep dry cows in straw yards (if not available, deep sand or deep straw cubicles) for 10 days pre-calving

“Research shows a strong relationship between pre-calving lying time and stillbirths. More resting means more healthy calves,” said Driessen.

Space and exercise

It is also vital to give cows adequate feeding space and exercise, and where feed allowance is sub-optimal or the dry cow diet too high in potassium, he maintained it leads to sub-clinical milk fever, cows having problems giving birth and weak calves.

Driessen is a strong advocate of using a “cuddle box” immediately post calving. It involves the new-born calf being placed in a box at the front of the cow, along with feed. The cow is restrained in a headlock and is milked, with colostrum fed to the calf.

“All young farmers in Holland are doing this – it is one of the best things you can do if you want to improve your dairy business.

“The calf is stimulated, is in a clean environment, the cow is eating. It is safer. You get the colostrum in,” said Driessen.

Each calf should receive four litres of colostrum within 30 minutes of birth – after one hour the absorption rate of antibodies from the colostrum drops 10% and after 6 hours it is down to 50%.

His preference is always to give the cow’s own colostrum to the calf, and if quality is poor, potentially to top-up with a powder substitute. He does not like freezing and thawing out colostrum.

“When you freeze colostrum all the live cells are killed. If you are going to freeze, do it right after harvest and ensure everything is clean.


“If you leave it two hours before freezing it has exploded with bacteria,” he said.

Ideally, enough milk should be taken from the first three milkings to feed the calf five days, although that requires “bottles and a good marker pen,” said Driessen.

Once the calf has been fed and taken from the cow, he suggested it should be paired up with another calf of the same age. “They interact, they eat more and train each other how to eat, and they stay warm on a cold night,” said Driessen.

We will have further coverage from the Fane Valley calf conference in next weeks’ edition.

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