Your calves have just been born; you’ve made it this far! The hard work has paid off. Don’t let that slip away by not taking particular care in the days after your calf arrives. Teagasc has tonnes of information on their website, but we’ve sifted through to get the best out of it all. Here are the top 3 things you can’t forget to do:
1. Ensure Colostrum is consumed
Colostrum is the cow’s first milk after calving and is present for up to 6 milkings. It contains antibodies and growth factors and is superior in nutritional value when compared with whole milk (Godden, 2008).
At birth a calf’s immune system is not fully developed. Colostrum imparts passive immunity from the dam to the newborn calf via intestinal absorption of antibodies and should be fed for the first 3 days after birth.
Absorption is greatest in the first few hours of life and starts to decline progressively after 4 to 6 hours, and ceases after 24 hours from birth. Therefore, it is critical to feed colostrum as soon as possible after calving to ensure maximum immunity is acquired, as the most critical time in the life of a calf is during the first few days, when morbidity and mortality are greatest.
The ideal source of colostrum is the calf’s own dam for two main reasons i) concerns about the potential spread of Johnes disease and ii) the calf will acquire immunity to fight pathogenic organisms encountered on the home farm. Ideally calves should be given 2 – 3 litres of colostrum by oesophageal tube or by nipple feeding within four hours of birth with a total of 4 litres within 12 hours of birth.
Leaving calves to suckle colostrum from their dam is not recommended as there is no guarantee that they will have a sufficient intake. The amount of colostrum that calves drink voluntarily does not change within the first 4 hours after birth, so that there is no benefit in delaying first feeding.
Individual housing of calves, either indoors or outdoors, is generally linked with improved calf health; however this can require a large investment both financially and in terms of labour. There is long-term recognition of the benefit to dairy calf health of outdoor housing in hutches, especially for the prevention of diarrhoea and respiratory disease.
Frequently new-born calves are housed indoors in areas contaminated by other calves or older cattle. However, under these conditions mortality rate is often very high. Consequently, outdoor systems of rearing calves have been investigated. Healthy calves are readily able to deal with outdoor temperatures (once they are not excessively low) as long as they receive adequate amounts of energy and are provided with a dry, well-bedded and draft-free shelter.
For indoor reared calves the quality of bedding material is crucial in minimising heat loss. Deep straw bedding is superior to other bedding material in its efficacy as an insulator allowing calves to nestle into it which can have a preventive effect against calf respiratory disease in naturally ventilated calf barns. Good ventilation is a critical aspect of management and can profoundly affect respiratory health. The eight primary functions that proper ventilation should serve are:
- Eliminate drafts
- Eliminate areas of stagnant air
- Maintain optimum ambient temperature
- Maintain optimum environmental humidity levels
- Decrease airborne dust contamination
- Decrease airborne endotoxin levels
- Decrease the airborne pathogen concentration
- Eliminate noxious gases (ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and methane)
3. Identify and Deal with Disease
Any calves showing signs of sickness (scour, pneumonia etc.) should be removed immediately along with their dam and placed in a pen which is designated for sick animals only. They should only return to the group when the calf has recovered from illness. The pen which is used for sick animals must be cleaned and disinfected after each use. It must not be also used as an isolation facility for purchased animals/returning from shows.
Scour can be caused by viruses like rotavirus and coronavirus. A calf picks up these infections in either the calving pens or any other calf housing areas. All the agents that cause calf scour (viruses, bacteria and parasites) are passed out in the dung from other cows and calves. Without regular cleaning and disinfecting of all calf areas (e.g. calving pens, creep areas), these agents build up in the calf’s environment.
Allow the calf full access to the cow (do not take the calf off milk), and provide extra fluids/electrolytes to replace the fluids lost by the calf. Give the calf at least one electrolyte feed during the day (in 2 litres of water) and depending on the severity of the scour, a second feed can be given later in the day.
In general, they won’t need antibiotics. However, if the calf’s temperature rises above 39.5°Celsius or falls below 38.5°Celsius, it won’t suck, it passes blood in faeces, or has sunken eyes with weak limbs, you should immediately call a vet.
If the calf is passing blood in its dung.
If your calf has pneumonia, you’ll notice nasal discharge, coughing, heavy breathing, increased breathing rate (‘blowing’/panting), in addition to signs such as dullness, reduced appetite, drooped ears and fever.
It’s spread by droplets coughed up by or exhaled from other cattle/calves. Calves are more at risk if they haven’t got enough colostrum or they’re stressed.
Remove the sick calf along with its dam and place in the sick pen. Treat the calf under instructions from your vet. Once the calf has been removed from the group, take another look at the rest of the calves in that group. As pneumonia tends to spread rapidly in a group of calves, you may have to treat all the calves in the same pen (under veterinary advice/supervision).