Expansion of the dairy herd in recent years has led to increased pressures on dairy farms around spring calving. Dairy specialist with Teagasc, George Ramsbottom, has some advice for farmers on managing this challenging period.
The annual countrywide series of calf rearing seminars held in January by Animal Health Ireland (AHI), in conjunction with Teagasc, took on increased importance this year with the realisation that many farms have experienced significant increases in calf numbers in recent years, on foot of the major expansion in dairy cow numbers.
“The farm walks are timely both in terms of the time of year coming up to the busy spring calving and also because of the extra calf numbers on most farms,” George says. “The fact that fertility has improved significantly in the Irish dairy herd in recent years means that many more calves are being born in a very tight time frame. The figures we have indicate that up to 65 per cent of cows now calve in a six-week period. The compact calving pattern allows greater efficiencies in utilising spring grass but also places challenges on calf-management and rearing systems on farms. Where before there might have been 30 or 40 cows calving on a farm in a six-week period now there are 70 or 80 cows calving in the same six week period.”
Four pillars of calf care
There were four main topics addressed at these farm walks, as George outlined: “Labour-efficient calf rearing was one area covered in detail and that included the potential for once-a-day feeding without impacting calf health or performance. In addition, controlling Johne’s disease was prioritised. This is a big risk to our industry and one that must be kept under control. AHI recently initiated a control programme for Johne’s disease. We also used the farm walks as an opportunity to bring farmers up to date on the latest advice and thinking in calf housing. This included airflow, cubic air capacity and floor size, or the amount of space necessary to ensure a healthy environment for the calf. The fourth major element of the calf-rearing programme we prioritised was a practical demonstration to show the best methods of cleaning houses prior to calving and during the calving and calf-rearing season. That included both the calving unit and the calf-rearing house.”
One of the last things to be thought through and organised on many farms tends to be calf-rearing facilities as the Teagasc specialist confirmed: “Quite often, a housing deficit only shows up only during the calving season and that leads to all kinds of consequent problems. So, that means that remedial action, rather than preventative measures, have to be undertaken. To minimise the management issues and pressures around young calves, many farmers are now selling on the calves at a young stage. That can relieve a lot of the potential pressures and problems. Another viable option that was discussed at length at the farm walks was the practice of getting calves out early. Early turnout to grass brings a lot of benefits. Calves perform very well outdoors, assuming they are well managed and minded.”
Too little space
The fact is, accommodation still needs to be upgraded on many farms to reflect the increased numbers of calves being born in a short time. There is a potential ‘double whammy’ when too many calves and too many calves of varying ages are kept in confined spaces that are inadequate to their husbandry requirements.
“As the calving season goes on, bugs build up in the housing and the weather is also gradually getting warmer, adding to the potential for disease build-up. The later calves are the most vulnerable because their immune systems are under more pressure from greater exposure to the various bugs that can be around the calf houses. When the disease threshold rises, those young calves are the ones that tend to suffer most, and they are also the calves that can afford to suffer least, because they are the youngest and weakest. From a commercial viewpoint, the young calves actually need to perform better than the older calves, who have age on their side, to reach the required target weights in due course. There are key life-stage milestones to be reached if those calves are to have a long life on the farm as part of the dairy herd. There is no room for major setbacks with those heifer calves destined to be put in-calf the following spring and to calve down at two years of age. So, everything possible must be done to prevent health setbacks anywhere along that two-year path. The early stages are the most critical because that’s when calves are most vulnerable to health problems.”
Safeguarding our reputation
Taking an overall view of the importance of good calf-rearing practices, George gave out a timely warning: “We cannot afford to endanger the hard-gained reputation of Irish dairying in terms of animal husbandry. Just one publicised incidence of poor calf management would have a very bad effect on the status of the Irish dairy sector. It’s critical that we all do our best to prevent any lapse in standards.”
George noted that many of the new entrants to dairying, whether from beef enterprises or converted tillage farms, can often have a very high standard of calf care.
“They tend to come into the sector without any old or outdated management practices.
They are starting with a clean sheet and usually adopt what are recognised as best practices and that always pays off. They have often undertaken training courses and have worked with some of the best farmers in the country. They have no bad habits or preconceptions after years of practice that, sometimes, are no longer optimal for current situations with increased stock numbers. The reality, however, is that the vast majority of farmers are open to new ideas and better ways of doing things. That’s why it is so worthwhile running these farm walks every year. Like any other job, it’s necessary to freshen up on the best way of doing the job, and an annual update on best practice is not only necessary but essential.”