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Cut down on heifer ‘sick days’ with a focus on herd health.

Published 14th January 2016 | Article by Graham Shepherd

Cut down on heifer ‘sick days’ with a focus on herd health.

You will no doubt agree that the future productivity and profitability of any livestock farm is deeply rooted in the genetics and management of the replacement young stock. Cogent and yourselves supply either side of the genetics equation, while management is mostly covered by health, nutrition and environment.

Environment can be mastered by providing three elements - plenty of draft-free ventilation, a dry, deep straw “nest” and a breathable calf coat, simple! Nutrition and health are very closely entwined. Aggressive, infectious bugs can cause severe disease in their own right; IBR would be one example. Milder infections are made worse, more obvious and are more performance limiting, if there are dietary deficiencies (eg not enough calories commonly), or environmental problems, such as draughts or still, stale air. Health, nutrition and environment need to be right to grow the heifer both before and after weaning.

Two good examples of why investment will pay off are udder development and pelvic growth: Udder growth - the milk-producing cells, are formed in the first six weeks of life. Any set-back pre-weaning will reduce milk yield later on. You cannot get this loss of “milk tissue” back later! Researchers at Cornell University have shown that getting it right before weaning can give an extra 3,681 kg of milk in the first 3 lactations. Pelvic growth – the growth plates of the bones of the pelvis close by 12 months of age. Therefore, in animals up to a year old, frame growth will influence the size of the pelvis at calving and as a frame on which to hang the udder. Pelvic growth after a year of age continues at a slower, but fairly uniform rate. Paying attention to health and nutrition in young animals will improve calving ease and udder suspension in their later years. Pre-weaning health and growth are dependent on good colostrum management.

I make no apologies for banging on about, it again, as it is the one vital piece in the plan. You all know that most dairy calves will not get sufficient colostral immunity, if left to their own devices. You all know that a 45kg calf needs 200g of antibodies from colostrum. This is greatly aided by taking in: 3-4L of colostrum 50g antibodies per 1L of colostrum, tested by a colostrometer or refractometer Low bugs in the colostrum - TBC of 100. No flies or cats! The first feed given within 2 hours of birth This protocol results in 90% of calves having good immunity from colostrum. Research from China showed the best timing and quantities were 3.8L at birth, followed by 2L, twelve hours later. The hygiene of the colostrum is important. Disposable “Perfect Udder” bags will screw on to the feeding tube or the teat. You can pasteurise, refrigerate, freeze, thaw and feed from the one hygienic bag. Colostrum can be pasteurised, to reduce the bug count and kill certain disease-causing agents, including Johnes disease, TB and Mycoplasma.

Removing bacteria improves absorption of the antibodies, so the effect is actually better health in calves given pasteurised colostrum. This is proven by research on 1,071 calves by the University of Minnesota. Because modern pasteurisation programmes used in the dedicated calf machines do not damage antibodies, then any vaccines given to the cow will still protect the calf via the colostrum, if it is fed correctly. UK Dairy farmers who have bought pasteurisers for colostrum and calf feeding milk remark that their calves have never been as healthy.

Daily liveweight gains of one kilogram are common. We know that this practice gives us heifers that calve down on time, with a good udder and pelvis. We all know that real whole milk is best for calves. Pasteurising reduces disease risk, lowers the general bug count and provides milk ready at one time at the correct temperature. The extra energy, extra protein and greater digestibility of whole milk is even more important in winter, keeping the calf warm from within. A calf coat will help further, increasing comfort and reducing stress and disease. Early rumen development is important, as rumen fermentation is a major heat source in cattle. Colostrum management, vaccination, nutrition and thermal comfort increase the calf’s resistance to disease. Reducing exposure to disease is equally important. If we give a sideways glance to pigs and poultry, we see “All-in, All-out” policies and strict cleansing and sanitising between batches.

Calves should be handled in a similar manner. You will have seen that disease builds up in a calf shed until it becomes overwhelming. A common situation is groups of calves, where a couple of old calves are removed and a couple of three day olds added. I call this “the Crypto Recipe.” To do a proper job, all surfaces need to be cleansed with a power washer and a caustic cleaning foam (eg TK FoamClean), to remove all dirt. After cleansing, follow up with a disinfectant dedicated to the disease situation. TK Swordsman is a product dedicated to final disinfection against viruses, bacteria and protozoa commonly found in calf housing. There is a lot to think about, but that is what makes farming and animal health so interesting!

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