Reviewing calf housing in warmer, wetter winters

Reviewing calf housing in warmer, wetter winters

We meet Scott Baker, Youngstock Manager at Leaze Farm in South Somerset. Scott looks after 2100 youngstock from Rushywood Farm. Rushywood has 1900 milking cows on an Arla contract, which is run by his father, brother and sister (Neil, Jamie and Rhian). Scott talks to British Dairying about rearing mainly replacement heifers, and how tactical housing selection has resulted in more robust calves.

 

KEY STATS:

Herd average: 11,640 kgs; Avg Milk 36; 4.02% Butterfat; 3.5% Protein; SCC=99. RABDF Gold Cup Winners 2015; Herd vaccinated for Lepto, BVD, IBR & Clostridia; Tested BVD free; Milking herd average PLI £263; Youngstock herd average PLI £619.

 

South Somerset, like much of the South West, has received a lot of rainfall in recent months. Combined with warmer than average temperatures, the Baker family, like many, are entering the winter period with a different challenge to the norm.

 

Usually in December, we’d be worrying about cold stress, and I’d be increasing bedding and feeding increased milk replacer to replenish lost energy due to the cold and using calf jackets where necessary” says Scott. “But this year, management has changed. I know the temperature will drop eventually and we’re ready for it, but while the weather remains wet and warm my main concern is pneumonia.”

 

As we face a streak of record-breaking global temperatures over the last five months, the warmer wetter autumn has come as a greater challenge for many – not least because of the associated increase in pneumonia in calves. Pneumonia is the leading cause of death of calves on dairy and beef farms, and as with any disease, getting ahead of it saves time, effort, and expense on farm.

 

Scott tells us “Pneumonia is our biggest challenge in the first eight weeks, so we vaccinate animals in this period to provide protection. As well as striving for the best indoor layout to balance health and welfare with ease of management. All our calves start in paired pens from day one, as stipulated by our contract, but having two calves in the pen increases ambient temperature and allows animals to socialise.”

 

“We average around five calves a day at Rushy Wood, so my mind is always on numbers, and space” explains Scott.

 

Rushy Wood Farm’s calf unit, Leaze Farm, is located around two miles from the dairying set up, and comprises three calf housing areas. The calf unit set up provides maximum flexibility, as they calve all-year round. The indoor pens offer the most flexibility for Scott, whose preference for Calf-Tel pens lies in how robust, hygienic, and versatile the pens are. “Better biosecurity is an easy way to reduce disease challenge, but you need to look closely at all aspects of your kit and the way you’ve always done things, as you might be missing easy wins. We bed down with straw onto sloping concrete indoors and clean and disinfect with Bioocyst every rotation of animals. Warm, damp weather is a breeding ground for bacteria, so we try and use a clean with 100°C water and detergent, allot to dry, then disinfect protocol. That’s why it’s even more important to use pens such as mine that are made from impermeable material so bacteria and viruses can’t remain hidden.”

 

Scott continues: “I also like that these pens bigger than the UK requirements and that extra space and ventilation seems to give calves the edge. Anecdotally, I would say the indoor penned calves do the best, better than outdoor hutches, although I have yet to formally test that theory”.

 

Once weaned, or to avoid overstocking and keeping space available for new arrivals to the unit, calves go outdoors into well bedded Multimax group hutches or a straw yard in small groups, depending on how robust the individual calves are. Calf rearers evaluate calf robustness by eye and all individuals on site monitor for clinical issues on sight.

 

We conduct blood testing to monitor passive transfer of colostrum from dam to calf to indicate animals with lower immunity, so we can give them an extra helping hand if needs be.”

 

 “Scours has been all but eliminated and we are working to a KPI of below 5% mortality in the milk pen calves to six months.”

 

Reducing loss to pneumonia in the changing climate by adjusting housing, stocking density, and health and welfare management will all help producers continue the downward trajectory on antibiotic use and increase the profitability of calves. Rearing dairy heifer calves is the second-largest annual expense on-farm, accounting for up to 20% of cost, but with dynamic management practice that can adapt to challenges – such as a very wet Autumn – producers can remain on track.

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