Getting the calf environment right early on

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The first three months of a calf’s life are critical as events in early life have effects on the performance throughout its lifetime, hence why getting the calf environment right is crucial.

As farmers, we are all aware of the animals that fall ill and survive with treatment but never reach their full potential.

With this in mind, the old mantra of ‘prevention is better than cure’ is the first step towards optimising calf health.

Firstly, the calves must have sufficient space to stand up, lie down, turn around, stretch and groom whether they are housed as a group or individually.

The environment should be well ventilated to provide a constant flow of low speed fresh air to prevent the build-up of stagnant air and pathogens, without creating a draught.

A well-ventilated shed is particularly important in preventing pneumonia which young calves are particularly susceptible to.

Calves spend up to 80% of their day lying down so it is important to provide sufficient dry bedding that can be easily removed and replaced.

Calf pens should be cleaned, washed and disinfected between batches of calves to reduce disease levels. This includes rails, gates, feeders and drinkers.

Pressure cleaning is recommended as disinfectant works best whenever physical dirt is removed first.

Optimal daily live weight gain (DLWG) for calves is 700-800g/ day up to 15 weeks.

Milk replacer is the most common choice of feed to achieve this if the calf is not with its dam.

When choosing a milk replacer, it is important to ensure that it is rich in protein to support good frame growth.

To help achieve this daily gain, the calf should also be provided with roughage such as barley or straw after the first week of age.

This material should ideally be palatable, dust free and refreshed daily.

It is important to create and stick to a regular feeding schedule – feed at the same time every day with the same volume and type of milk replacer.

In addition to milk and roughage, fresh water must be available to the calf at all times to support rumen development and encourage dry feed intake.

Finally, it is important to have a good biosecurity plan in place on the farm, especially if calves are bought in rather than home bred and reared.

When purchasing calves it is important to be aware of the disease status of the source herd, reject sick calves, enquire if the farm ensures sufficient colostrum is given at birth, and isolate any new animals on the farm to minimise the likelihood of a disease outbreak on the farm.