From the moment your calves are born they become an asset to your farm. How calves are reared will set the tone for the lifetime productivity of the animal.
Whether rearing calves for heifer replacements or beef animals, goals are similar:
- To develop the rumen of the calf (which is immature at birth), so that when it is weaned it can get nutrients from eating high fibre feeds such as grass.
- To produce quality replacement heifers that become high producing cows and will last over time in the herd.
- To grow beef animals to target weights faster and in better condition so they achieve slaughter dates earlier, or on time, at better weights.
- To do both in a way that is cost-effective.
Top tips on calf care:
- In the first 10 hours of life the calf should have at least 4 litres of colostrum.
- If possible, pick up calves as soon as they are born. Getting them into the calf shed fast will ensure they are not cold for an extended period of time and will ensure they get the colostrum they require quickly.
- Don’t be afraid to stomach tube calves as required if they don’t willingly drink their required volume of colostrum or milk. Missing feeds can indicate sickness, so keep your eye on these calves and tube them again next feed if required.
- Calves should have their navels sprayed with iodine and checked regularly. If at 3 days of age the cord is bigger than a little finger, then it will require veterinary attention.
- Bring milk to the calves where practical, not the other way around. This will ensure calves are as relaxed as possible at feeding time.
- Make clean water available at all times.
- Don’t let your senses idle when dealing with calves as many potential issues can be picked up by paying close attention to animal behaviour.
- Keep records to help identify problems. You may be able to trace problems back to events, or it may help you in future seasons.
Provide a warm dry shelter for protection against the harsh weather. Animal bedding is recommended for comfort. All these things will create a stress-free environment for the calf to relax and preserve energy.
The young calf has a very delicate balance between health and disease as their immune system is underdeveloped, relying on passive immunity from colostrum in the first few months. Disease can come at huge costs and burden to the calf rearer in terms of loss of growth or animal deaths, loss of future production and also in terms of treatment and prevention measures.
Attention to detail is very important when trying to prevent disease and prevention is generally more economical than the cure in most cases. Preventing the introduction and spread of disease is essential in calf management, along with regular monitoring of calf health.
“Prevention is better than a cure in terms of both economics and staff morale”.
Top tips for preventing disease:
- Ensure calves have adequate colostrum intake in the first few months of life (Find out more about colostrum here).
- Feeding a cow pre-calving can have an impact on her calf while in the womb and a cow that is well fed pre-calving, is more likely to have a trouble-free birth and produce a calf that is healthier, more lively and set up to do well.
- Ensure calves are fed high quality, clean milk or milk replacer.
- Ensure calves always have access to clean water.
- Ensure calves have all necessary vaccinations.
- Ensure calves have access to a high quality, palatable hard feed, with a coccidiostat included (to prevent coccidiosis).
- Decrease stress-inducing factors such as transportation, sudden feed changes, poor ventilation, crowding, temperature fluctuations and draughts. These factors can impact disease resistance.
- Minimise risk of exposure to bacteria, viruses and parasites into the calves environment by using a broad spectrum disinfectant
- Control the flow of people in and out of the calf barn, only allow access to essential people. Have dedicated equipment for the calf barn and ensure it is kept clean.
- Always wash hands with soap and warm water before and after handling calves, feed and feeding equipment.
- Keep sick calves in a separate pen away from others.
- Situate the calf barn away from cows and dairy effluents. Cows can be carriers of disease.
Your complete guide to calf housing
The lifetime productivity of your calves can depend on how they are reared. A well-reared calf is an asset to the herd. Investing in your calves now ensures growth further down the line. Good housing is important if you want to get the most out of your calves and see an increase in yield in the future. Poor comfort increases energy demand and stress, which results in reduced performance and immune response.
Top tips for calf housing:
- A barn with separate pens is necessary. The rule of thumb is 10–12 calves per pen, with an extra pen specifically for sick animals.
- Allow adequate space for calves — at least 1.5–2m2 per calf.
- Keep calves in groups according to size, this will minimise bullying and stress, meaning calves will be healthier and will grow faster.
- Dry, draught-free pens with good daylight exposure are best. If you can feel a draught on the back of your hand at calf level, it’s too draughty.
- Pens should be constructed with three solid walls using sheet metal or untreated plywood, with one end open to allow good ventilation and the removal of gases and ammonia from urine. This open end should ideally face leeward and north for sunshine.
- Pens should be twice as long as it is wide to allow calves to move to the back to get out of wind and rain.
- Bedding should be sawdust/shavings, untreated bark, or wood chip and should be 300mm deep or more. The bedding must be kept clean and dry
- The barn, pens, and bedding should be sterilised with a calf-safe virucidal spray before calves arrive, to kill any viruses. This should then be re-done every 2 weeks thereafter.
- Keep birds from roosting in the barn, as their droppings can cause disease.
Why not starting with animal bedding?
Resource: Written by NRM Feed Guide