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Can your calf rearing strategy improve farm labour efficiency?

December 1, 2021

Numerous research projects have shown the benefits for calving replacement heifers at 24 months. The benefits vary from higher lifetime milk yields to easier calving and more fertile replacements with a longer lifespan. These research projects also highlight the importance of early calf health and development, and in many cases state that any set back in calf development at this critical stage can often jeopardise the heifer’s ability to achieve this 24 month target. With many herds expanding across Northern Ireland more replacement heifers are required, so more facilities are needed, and ultimately more labour and time input is required to rear calves. Conail Keown, CAFRE Senior Dairy Adviser in Downpatrick poses two questions to local dairy producers about their calf rearing strategy- Are your heifers off to the best possible start? Is the overall rearing systems efficient in terms of labour?

A Business Development Group (BDG) discussed these very questions earlier this year on a dairy farm in the Newtownards area. What follows is a brief review of that discussion.

Positioning the water heater close to calves will reduce time spent transporting milk.
Positioning the water heater close to calves will reduce time spent transporting milk.

How can I improve colostrum availability for new born calves?

A new born calf has no active immunity and is highly vulnerable to infection. Consequently it is completely reliant on a quality source of colostrum to protect against the challenge of disease. Timing is critical at this stage as the ability of the calf to absorb antibodies decreases rapidly after birth. To ensure newborn calves receive sufficient colostrum a supply of frozen colostrum in 2 litre bags works well, these bags are like flat packed freezer bags, and are relatively quick and easy to defrost when needed. A minimum of 4 litres of this colostrum should then be administered into calves using a stomach tube within 2 hours, and sometimes in two separate feeds. This first feed is regarded the most important and everyone involved in the farm including any staff involved in calf rearing need to be aware of its importance.  The percentage of antibodies in colostrum decreases rapidly with each milking. The second milking usually only contains 60 – 70 % of the antibodies available in the first milk. Only use the first milk from cows for the first colostrum feed.  

Preventative action is required for pneumonia and calf scour

On calf health the BDG considered prevention as a priority. Associated cost and labour input for sick calves can be significant and will in most cases outweigh the prevention option. The BDG suggested a strategy where all cows are vaccinated with ‘rotavac’ six weeks before calving to limit the impact of rotavirus and E coli scour in calves. A typical case of calf pneumonia is likely to cost an average £60 per animal in medicine and labour costs according to research from the Scottish Agricultural College. Remember, the period between birth and weaning is the time when calves are most efficient at converting feed into weight. Calf scours or pneumonia at this stage can have long lasting implications and in the case of replacement heifers any challenge experienced during this stage can mean calves are playing catch up and can ultimately delay the time to first service.

Cryptosporidium- treatment and prevention.

Many of the BDG members had a major challenge with cryptosporidium (crypto) in calves in 2020, about half way through the calving period these farms started getting calves around one week old with persistent diarrhoea that did not respond to normal scour therapy. Close cooperation with the local vet is required to establish what the scour is and how to limit the impact of the condition. A general veterinary view is that the majority of farm deaths represent only a small proportion of the total cost of a scour outbreak in a herd. The biggest costs are treatment with additional labour input and reduced lifetime performance. Calves that recover from scour like crypto are more susceptible to other diseases and are usually approximately 10% lighter than their counterparts at 24 months of age which can result in delayed first service and reduced yield during first lactation.

Good hygiene in the calving area and getting good quality colostrum into the calf is the starting point in combating a crypto outbreak. Most of the farms now operate a ‘calf snatch’ system where calves are removed from the cows immediately after birth. This is to restrict the calf’s access to dirt and debris from both the cow and the calving pen.

‘Halocur’ is recommended for the treatment and prevention of cryptosporidium in calves. However, a local vet points out that ‘Halocur’ will only help restrict the spread of the organism in young calves, it is not a 100% cure. Good hygiene in the calving area and calf rearing area is still required to restrict the spread. 

Manual or automatic calf milk feeding?

Rearing calves is a labour intensive process, particularly on compact calving dairy farms. Labour is becoming harder to source, and calf rearing is accounting for more and more of the total labour input on farms. Recent studies show calf rearing second only now to milking duties with approximately between 15% and 23% of farm labour now allocated to calf rearing (data from Teagasc dairy labour project). Within the BDG group a number of farms operated automatic feeders, while the consensus was the automatic feeder was more labour efficient than manually batch feeding calves. There was an increased cost with the feeder itself and maintenance cost. The group considered both systems excellent for calf health and growth, with no difference in performance.

While there are many components to an effective, and efficient calf rearing system, it is important to critically review your own system. There is always small changes or improvements that will improve calve health. However, you need to be cautious and ensure any changes deliver in terms cost and labour efficiency for your farm. As it has become increasingly difficult to source farm labour in recent years, it is important to prioritise farm labour when developing strategies and systems like calf rearing.

Key points:

  • Develop your calf rearing strategy around calf health and labour input.
  • Protocols to prevent disease in calves are effective in reducing the impact disease outbreaks can have on labour input.
  • Automatic calf feeding is more labour efficient than manual batch feeding.

The BDG Scheme is funded by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs and the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development.