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Newborn calf outcome link to quality of its colostrum; Animal health and welfare is always a priority on modern dairy units. Long-term herd health starts with high-level calf-rearing practices, according to a renowned international speaker who recently visited farmers in the North East. BRUCE JOBSON reports.


CARE and management of the next generation of dairy replacements is an important part of the farm business requiring increasing levels of expertise.

It's vitally important that the calf-rearing system provides the opportunity for calves to grow to their full potential.

In order for farmers and calf-rearing managers to get the best possible husbandry advice, DairyCo recently enlisted US expert speaker Dr Sam Leadley.

DairyCo is funded by a national dairy producer levy and the organisation has an important function within the British dairy industry. DairyCo provides research and development and information on the latest best practice for farmers and their staff through independent management advice and impartial expertise.

Dr Leadley is currently involved in a national DairyCo tour and British farmers are being informed of the required calf-rearing key performance indicators. The New York State-based expert emphasised that calf rearing was the single most important aspect in a newborn animal's subsequent health and wellbeing.

He said: "The first 24 hours is the most important time in a calf's life. This initial period determines how an animal may perform for the rest of her life.

"High-immunity calves perform much better than low-immunity calves and during an animal's subsequent first lactation; the difference can be 500 litres of milk production. The take-home message on colostrum is 'feed early and feed as much as possible' within the first four to six hours of life."

Dr Leadley is a former faculty member of Pennsylvania State University as well as a member of the extension staff at Cornell University. He consults with dairy farmers and heifer-rearing contractors with the goal of improving the profitability of raising healthier, fastergrowing animals through better management practices.

The bovine specialist is currently working with a large US veterinary practice, having previously managed a calf and heifer-rearing enterprise on a 1,200 dairy unit in western New York State. Setting high-level management targets is essential in order to achieve the best possible results, according to Dr Leadley.

"It's important that animals receive the required levels of colostrum, the sooner the better," he said.

"However, colostrum varies from each individual cow, with some cows producing excellent-quality colostrum while others may produce poorer quality. "Newborn calves are therefore susceptible to antibody passive transfer failure and it's important to have accurate quality assessment. Feeding an animal in the first few hours of life is therefore critical to its long-term health and welfare."

Dr Leadley encourages farmers to invest in a clostrometer to test the quality of the colostrum milk from each individual animal. He says cows produce better colostrum, rather than first lactation heifers, and farmers should also consider, if possible, feeding newborn heifer calves on cow colostrum.

However, if it is not dam to calf, farmers will need to consider Johne's disease implications.

Dr Leadley said: "Newborn calves don't always feed from their mothers or drink from a bottle in the first few hours after birth; 40% of calves will consume three litres in their first feeding and 30% will only consume two litres.

"It's therefore worth investing in a liquid tube feeder and having at least one member of staff trained to administer feeding the newborn calf by this method."

Calf health can also be determined prior to the animal being born, and having a clean, dry environment helps minimise the risk of infection. Transmission of bacteria through faecal and urine contamination presents high risks for the newborn animal, especially if the heifer calf has an unprotected stomach.

He stresses that young calves are still open to bacterial infection even if fed high-quality colostrum.

Dr Leadley advises his farmer clients to clean the dam's teats before allowing the calf to suckle. He states contaminated animal hair is the most common environment for a calf to ingest bacteria into its mouth. The harmful pathogens then enter the animal's stomach and create environmental havoc and potential health problems.

In a recent animal health study conducted in the US and Canada, results indicated two-thirds of the collected colostrum samples were contaminated above the accepted level. The highlevel bacteria counts transmit into increasing incidences of calf diarrhoea as well as prolonged periods of scouring and dehydration.

These concerns, therefore, effect the longterm calf health and incur increasing veterinary costs, states Dr Leadley. Hygiene and air quality are other contributing factors that help ensure calves get the best possible start. Calf feeding buckets, milk bottles and tube feeders should be washed and thoroughly disinfected and calves should be housed in well-ventilated environments.

Dr Leadley emphasises that individual rearing goals vary owing to genetics and differences between breeds. One preferred method is to aim for maximum lifetime milk production rather than maximum first lactation production. In order to achieve this, replacement animals should be 85% of their required mature size when calving down as first lactation heifers.

He said: "Aim for a mature cow size such as what she would achieve as a four or five-year old cow. Heifers also should be 55% of their mature size at breeding age. It's important to aim for these two target growth goals and feed the required concentrate and supplement levels accordingly." The approachable calf-rearing expert has been packing out audiences on his DairyCo sponsored tour. Dr Leadley has given presentations in hotels and pubs as well as on-farm meetings. An event in the Borders, supported by mineral specialist company Almins, produced interesting statistical research findings in a farmer participant questionnaire.

Independent analysis indicated herds are continuing to increase in size, contract rearing of heifer calves off-farm is becoming more popular and calving age varies across breeds.

DairyCo's North East extension officer Jo Speed said calf-rearing trends also indicate large Holstein herds appear to be opting to contract rear replacement heifers with off-farm specialists.

"The data demonstrated herd size continues to increase on a regional basis and more than 30% of respondents at the meeting indicated they now contract out heifer rearing from 12 months of age, until the age of 24-26 months or effective calving age," she said.

"Rearing replacement heifers is an increasingly important part of everyday farm management and as herd size increases, the potential number of dairy heifer calves born rises proportionately. Farmers are under increasing pressure to house healthy well-grown young animals, ready to calve down at optimum age, and this places additional pressure on farm labour resources.

"The high value of dairy replacement animals, from day one through to calving, requires the best possible on-farm management practice.

"Dr Leadley has helped reinforce key performance indicators and set positive target values that will help benefit the region's dairy farmers and specialist calf rearers."


ADVICE Dairy expert Sam Leadley is on a UK tour CRUCIAL The first 24 hours is the most important time in a calf's life, says expert Dr Sam Leadley, and will determines how an animal may perform for the rest of her life
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Nov 26, 2011
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