Colostrum, feeding, hygiene, fresh air, calf comfort and space are the cornerstones of successfully rearing calves, renowned vet, Tommy Heffernan believes.
During his recent ‘Being Brilliant at the Basics Winter Calf Health webinar 2023, ‘Tommy the Vet’, outlined why farmers should focus on these six key areas of calf health.
Firstly, he told viewers that colostrum is “the main building block” and the foundation of calf health systems, which is why this is “often where problems can occur”.
He discussed the three Q’s, quality, quantity and quickly protocol, as we previously highlighted in an article last week from Teagasc’s national dairy conference on the ‘Calf 1 to 6 Rule’.
Colostrum for calves
For the purpose of this news article, That’s Farming will summarise the vet’s advice concerning the first two factors: colostrum and hygiene, with tips on the other four to follow in a separate post in due course.
Also, the vet stressed that measuring quality is paramount and is a task farmers can undertake themselves on-farm using a “cheap but useful tool” known as a refractometer.
However, he did acknowledge that it can be “laboursome to test every single sample, but as a minimum, sample your heifers, which will give you a good indication of quality”.
“On the Brix Refractometer, we are aiming for over 22, over 25 ideally. It is very interesting when you look at how pre-partum feeding can influence that, which I saw on-farm.”
“If it is poor colostrum quality, it is going to set the calf back. If we are seeing poor quality, there are things we can do in the diet.”
“We know about the immunity story with colostrum, but what is really interesting is the epi-genetics piece, the priming of the young gut. That becomes really interesting when we look at hygiene in colostrum.”
“So when we have pathogens like E.coli getting in there first, they are going to disrupt the absorption and passive transfer of these antibodies, but they are also going to impact the young gut.”
Priming the young calf
Getting that good start with colostrum is key to priming the young calf for the first 24-48 hours and for future life-line performance, he told farmers.
He stressed that the first 24 hours on a farm is make or break from a calf health perspective.
In summary, he dubbed “colostrum as nature’s gift as it is priming the young gut with so many different things”.
“Anything we can do to improve the cleanliness of colostrum if need to look at bottlenecks from a hygiene perspective such as buckets, dump lines, milking machines and stomach tubes.”
The second factor, feeding, revolves about optimising biology and behaviour and begins with the question: how much can a calf drink?
The vet commented: “A calf can definitely drink more than 6L/day and will feed 6-8 times a day, so we need to be mindful of that.”
“We need to be mindful of stressing the biology of the calf,” he added.
He advised that farmers need to look at the timing of feeding, temperature, milk and whole versus replacer (its quality), fresh available water “the forgotten nutrient for most animals”, feeding fresh concentrates daily, and fibre to stimulate the muscular wall of the rumen, so straw is “very effective in this case”.
Moreover, farmers must remember that calves are monogastric and, therefore, “you are never going to get the same value from 1KG of DM or 1KG of muscle growth as you will in the first weeks of life”.
He acknowledged that there can be labour shortages on farms, which means farmers have to adapt their efficiencies to deal with this.
Heffernan said automatic feeders “help in this space”, but farmers should calibrate them correctly, review calf performance and ensure they have sufficient resources to “feed calves more in cold times”.
He advised farmers to review all protocols, including hygiene, mixing, constituents, and quality, as “consistency and attention to detail in young calves make a huge difference with calf feeding”.
The vet summarised his discussion on feeding by saying, “the time to fix the roof is when the sun is shining”.
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