Calf in a barn

Importance of calf health and reducing antibiotic use

Improving calf health and reducing antibiotic use are top of the list of priorities for dairy farmers according to findings from a recent Mole Valley Farmers’ survey.

Nearly 550 dairy farmers and calf rearers filled out the online survey, with 79% saying that boosting calf health was a priority for their business. Three quarters wanted to reduce the amount of antibiotics they used to treat calves.

Vet Andy Adler of Molecare Farm Vets says the results highlight the importance British farmers place on maximising calf health and welfare. It also shows there’s scope for producers to make even greater strides when it comes to producing productive, long-lived calves.

The main areas for attention highlighted by the survey were:

1. Pneumonia was top of the list of disease challenges in calves

Pneumonia was identified as the biggest health challenge and was the main cause of antibiotic use and calves not hitting growth targets.
Andy says: “Farmers need to understand which respiratory pathogens they have on farm and have a preventative health strategy in place, such that they manage the environment the animals are living in, the food they’re getting and the immunity they get through colostrum and vaccination.

“The current situation with long-Covid shows how difficult it is for people to get over respiratory infection and it’s the same with calves. We know that calves that get respiratory disease don’t grow as well.”

With 81% of respondents saying calves needed antibiotic treatment for respiratory disease in the last six months and only 44% vaccinating, Andy says there’s also potential for farmers to protect their calves better.

2. Most farmers recognised the value of colostrum

“It’s great to see that over half of farmers surveyed measured colostrum quality,” Andy says. “Colostrum is the most important meal a calf will ever have. Feeding the right quantity and quality of this ‘liquid gold’ will help calf health in the first 2-4 weeks and set her up for a healthy, productive life.”

Ideally all colostrum should be tested using a colostrometer or refractometer and only the best fed to calves. Calves should be fed a minimum of three litres in the first six hours of life, split into two feeds if necessary. A further three litres should be fed within 12 hours.

3. Measuring growth rates could bring big benefits

47% did not monitor calf growth rates, which shows there’s big scope for livestock farmers to embrace precision farming.

“It’s interesting that 53% aren’t achieving the 24 month target age at first calving when we know calving at this age is a substantial part of sustainable dairy production, helping to lower rearing costs and carbon footprint and optimise milk yields. Those that measure colostrum and track growth rates were also more likely to hit this target which highlights the value of measuring,” Andy says.

He recommends that calves are weighed at weaning and then as regularly as possible through to service. By measuring, farmers can then understand whether animals are on track. If they’re not, they can then intervene.

calf survey data

The Mole Valley Feed Solutions team can provide advice on all aspects of calf feeding and management. Call the Feed and Nutritionists Line on 01278 444829.