TOP TIPS FOR CALF REARING
This post may be a bit longer then my normal blogs, but I’ve been asked so many times to cover calf rearing tips and there’s so much I deme vital, so let's jump right into it.
For me good calf rearing can be condensed into 3 key factors:
Although listed numerically above each one is as important as the other. There’s no point in having a solid plan for colostrum management if your hygiene is non-existent. And there’s no point in having everything sparkling clean if you’re not going to allow the calf time to learn what you expect from them. So let’s talk about why they are so important.
1. C O L O S T R U M (this is going to be a long one)
Let’s talk about the gold stuff.. Colostrum! It is the MOST important drink in a calves life. It’s the first milk a cow produces after calving and it is jam packed with not only nutrients but also the cow's own antibodies to be passed onto her calf, to give the calf the best possible start in life in fighting off infections and diseases.
When dealing with colostrum we focus on the 4 Q’s..
Quality can vary from animal to animal, and contrary to the old wives tales, can’t be determined by simply looking at the milk. However you can check quality by using a refractometer. This is a handy wee tool that allows you to see the quality of the colostrum by measuring the angle of refraction, meaning it's able to determine the concentration quality of the milk. Colostrum with a quality over 22% is ideal for a calf’s first feed. It is always good to have high quality colostrum stored in the freezer to have on hand for if a freshly calved cow’s milk doesn’t read above 22%, this way you know that every calf is getting the highest quality of colostrum possible.
Colostrum quality can drop for a number of factors; leakage prior to calving, waiting over 6 hours to first milk the cow after calving, an older cow in her 4th or more lactation, and puerperal diseases such as RFM and hypocalcaemia.
Whoever said too much of a good thing is bad for you obviously wasn’t talking about colostrum. A minimum of 3L should be fed within the first 2 hours and at least within the first 6 hours, (the sooner the better), from my experience a calf will happily drink anywhere between 3-6L of colostrum. I have also found that the sooner you feed a calf there colostrum the easier they seem to be able to pick up drinking via a teat. As time consuming as it may be I find it is always preferable to give the first drink via a bottle rather than tubed, however the first priority is always to ensure the calf has drank enough so if you do have a particularly stubborn calf then tube feeding is definitely an option.
Colostrum should be fed as quickly post birth as possible, within the first 2 hours of life is the best practice. After 6 hours a calves intestine wall will start to turn from a semipermeable to non-permeable membrane. The precious antibodies found in colostrum are only able to work if they are able to permeate the intestine wall, meaning that you could be feeding the best quality colostrum in the world but all the good stuff ain’t getting in. By hour 6 a calf will only be able to absorb 1/3rd of the antibodies it could at birth!
Stressed calves don’t absorb the good stuff as effectively and calm animals, so the more chill you and the environment you are both in are, the better for the calf. Even if this particular calf decided to be born at 3am, in the pissing rain, on a Friday night. The more chilled out you are, the happier and healthier your calves will be.
2. H Y G I E N E
Even with the greatest of care to ensure calves get good quality colostrum, they are still very susceptible to a whole array of bugs and bacteria's. This is why hygiene is so important on the farm during calving.
Footbaths should be a dime a dozen on farm. Footbath at the entrance to the calving shed, footbath at the entrance to the calf shed, footbath at the entrance to the milking parlour. Footbaths everywhere!!! You have know idea what bugs you have on your own farm, that over time your cows have developed resistance to. Calves are not going to have this resistance yet, and are too fragile to be coming into contact with those kind of bugs. So making sure your boots and waterproofs are scrubbed clean is essential. As is making sure your calf feeders are kept clean. I like to ensure feeders are washed out with cold water after every feeding and then at least once a week they’re scrubbed with hot soapy water. After all you wouldn’t want to eat your dinner off a dirty plate, so why should your calves?
My final point on hygiene is bedding. Fresh, clean, dry bedding is a must have for calves. Deep straw bedding allows calves to ‘nest’, trapping warm air around them. If you can still see a calf’s legs when they’re lying down, you need to add more bedding! Another good test of the bedding is the ‘drop kneel’ test. Drop to your knees (no waterproof leggings for this one) and stay there for about 30 seconds; if when you stand up you have wet knees then you need to add some more fresh bedding!
3. P A T I E N C E
Working with young calves can wreck your head if you let it. Take a deep breath, and count to 10. And remember calves are babies. They aren’t going to understand what you're asking them to do straight away, but by staying calm and allowing them time to learn, you will succeed. Even if this means walking away and doing another job before coming back to try again.
As with all things farming, each farm is different and you should consult with your vet to put together calving standard operating procedures that best suit you and the challenges you face on your farm.