Planning for calf health starts months ahead of birth

Focusing on dam nutrition and vaccination strategy several weeks ahead of calving could give colostrum quality a boost and help farmers improve calf health and survivability.

That was the message from Mole Valley Farmers’ Calf Talk webinar entitled ‘The first 24 hours: 2 months in the planning.’

In it, Vet Johanna Marsden of Molecare Farm Vets, highlighted results from a recent Mole Valley Farmers’ survey of 540 calf rearers which showed about a third were seeing pre-weaning losses of 1-5%.

Pneumonia was ranked as the number one challenge by farmers, however, 94% had seen scours in their calves in the last six months and just 19% were vaccinating against it.

Johanna explained calves that experienced scours were often more likely to succumb to pneumonia later on. With that in mind, it was important to do everything possible to prevent infection. This started with providing plenty of quality colostrum within the first 24 hours and managing calves in a clean environment.

It was recommended to feed 10% of body weight in colostrum within the first six hours of birth as this was when the calf was most effective at absorbing immunoglobulins. Colostrum should be tested using a colostrometer or Brix refractometer - something over half of the farmers surveyed were doing. Only the quality supplies testing 22% on a Brix refractometer should be fed.

Johanna added: “If you can improve management in the first 24 hours by feeding enough good quality colostrum, and reduce the incidence of scours, you’re very likely to see lower pneumonia and better growth rates. The first 24 hours are absolutely crucial. It’s about giving the animal the best possible start in life. It’s about putting the calf in the best environment to reach its full genetic potential.”

She ran through a ‘prevention timeline’ to help farmers prevent scours. This included working with a vet to establish the cause of scours on farm. Test results could then be used to design an appropriate dam vaccination strategy. Vaccinating the dam against specific causes of scours would boost maternal antibody levels in colostrum and milk. These would then be transferred to the newborn calf via colostrum, helping to protect them against disease.

For example, if rotavirus, coronavirus or E.coli were identified as a problem, dry cows could be vaccinated against these pathogens 3-12 weeks before calving.
Numerous other factors were influencing natural colostrum quality, including parity and dry period length. Protein feeding in the dry period could also have a big impact.
Protein plays an important role in tissue repair, so by feeding the right balance of protein, the udder will be in better shape and able to produce quality colostrum and milk.

Ideally, a 13-14% crude protein diet should be fed in the three weeks before calving, rather than the typical 10-11% crude protein rations often fed at this time. This should deliver 1,200g of metabolisable protein per head per day. Farmers that implement this strategy typically see an increase in quality and quantity of colostrum.

For more information on calf feeding, please contact the
Feed and Nutritionists Line on
01278 444829.