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Calf welfare There is no room for complacency

The continuing emphasis on animal welfare and, especially, calf care was reflected in a paper delivered by Dr Emer Kennedy at Teagasc’s National Dairy Conference, writes Matt O’Keeffe

Animal welfare on Irish farms is very high by international standards, but there is no room for complacency, according to Emer, whose presentation dealt with management and housing guidelines and their roles in achieving excellent calf welfare. Consumers, she pointed out, are increasingly insisting on validated standards of production and animal welfare when they purchase livestock produce. 

The reality on many Irish dairy farms is that numbers of cows have increased substantially since the abolition of quotas, she said. Compact spring calving is the norm and that has led, not only to a significant increase in calf numbers, but also a peak period when large numbers of new calves are born on the farm in a short space of time. The workload to manage these calves, the labour available, and the infrastructure to house and feed these calves have had to be substantially increased. Automation of feeding has, in many cases, greatly assisted in ensuring that calf welfare and management have remained high, especially at a time when labour is at a premium both in terms of availability, calibre, and cost. 

Housing requirements

In her presentation, Emer approached the subject of calf housing through analysis of data and survey material on farmer attitudes towards extended care of non-replacement calves on farms. The results were positive. Most farmers believe that they can cope with extending the period they need to keep calves on the farm before sale, if necessary. Generally, it is believed that there is adequate housing space available to cope with any extended timescale, as a result of weather or marketing conditions or increasing regulation around calf movement. As well as adequate floor and air space for calves, there is a guideline that a ‘one-in-20’ floor slope is best to help maintain clean and dry bedding areas. This feature is lacking in many calf houses as confirmed in the Teagasc survey material. 

The ‘1-6 rule’

Emer reiterated a mantra she has been preaching, to good effect, for several years at calf-rearing events. The ‘1-6 rule’ is all about best practice in those crucial early hours, days, and weeks in a calf’s life.

  • Feeding high-quality, first-milking beestings/colostrum and feeding it within hours after birth are the first two parts of the rule. 
  • Three litres fed within two hours of birth, is the best way to ensure that maximum antibodies are absorbed by the calf in that critical period. Stomach-tube feeding does take the guesswork out and ensures that the calf gets the right amount of colostrum as soon as possible after birth but there is an absolute need to keep that equipment clean, so having several tubes available is recommended. 
  • Next up in the calf rule book is the transition period for the new-born during which at least four feeds of transition milk (early post-calving milk) are given to the calf. 
  • The daily intake recommendation is for a calf to be getting at least five litres of transition milk every day. 
  • Finally, part six of the rule states that by one week of age, calves should be offered six litres of milk or milk replacer split into two feeds. As ever, this may vary somewhat depending on individual calves. 
  • The increasing automation of calf feeding often means that, as the weeks go on, calves always have access to adequate milk or milk replacer. That, of course, is not a free-for-all and computerised automatic feeders do offer very detailed analysis and management of a calf’s daily feeding pattern and intake levels. This, in turn, provides calf managers with a high level of data around the health of individual calves. 

Testing colostrum

We now have the technology to ensure that colostrum quality is adequate to meet the nutritional needs of the new-born calf. A hand-held Brix refractometer allows colostrum to be tested quickly and provides an immediate reading of colostrum quality.
A reading value in excess of 22 per cent is recommended. In essence, this is a measurement of density, and, in scientific terms, the 22 per cent minimum means that the new-born calf is consuming three litres of colostrum containing greater than 50g/L of immunoglobulins within those important first post-birth hours, when the calf has no natural resistance and is dependent on its mother’s milk to provide it with defensive antibodies. Many of the health challenges that assail young calves can and will be avoided by providing a calf with those defensive antibodies in the first hours after birth,
Emer said.

Ongoing management

While colostrum and good quality milk and/or milk powder are a prerequisite to the nutritional needs of a young calf, the need to provide a fresh, clean water source at all times, along with regularly replenished and replaced concentrate feed, was highlighted. The long-term aim is to encourage rumen development for the calf’s subsequent lifelong diet and digestive needs. There is a regular debate and discussion at calf-rearing events about the need for and type of roughage to be provided. There is no definitive answer as fresh straw or good quality hay are equally adequate at the early dietary stage. Roughage does not provide much early growth stage nutrition, per se, but it does have a role. 

A role for every calf

A subject that was not dealt with at length at the conference was the absolute need to ensure that all new-born calves have a viable role. We have seen where the historical New Zealand strategy in relation to low-economic-value calves has led that industry. Along with public dissatisfaction with some environmentally weak farm practices, the general public in New Zealand are highly critical of some animal-welfare practices, most especially in relation to the treatment of low- or no-value, non-replacement calves on many New Zealand dairy farms. Such an approach cannot be countenanced on Irish farms in future. What may be a cost-effective, economic decision is not a publicly acceptable approach.

Pure economic decisions must be tempered with the need to maintain public and consumer acceptance of our production and livestock-management practices. It is noteworthy that Teagasc and the dairy-processing co-ops are moving quickly to ensure that even a small minority of our dairy farms are not caught short in terms of public awareness and acceptance of how our livestock are managed and cared for throughout their lives.