Manage the risks to ensure success in the calf shed

Date published: 03 September 2019

Area of Expertise:

AFBI Hillsborough recently hosted over 70 dairy farmer co-researchers for a special event on calf rearing.

The aim of the event was to provide an update from recent research investigating the quality of colostrum and management strategies across different farms as well as providing management advice for calf health, housing and hygiene.

Liquid Gold

Colostrum is the essential first feed for the newborn calf, containing the nutritional properties required for growth and antibodies needed to establish immunity and reduce the risk of calf ill health and mortality. However as shown by the AFBI colostrum project, not all colostrum is equal with there being large variation in terms of nutritional quality and bacterial contamination. Furthermore, in a recent AFBI survey of 66 dairy farms across Northern Ireland, only 13.6% of farmers routinely tested colostrum which puts calves at risk of failure to establish passive immunity. Dr Gillian Scoley (AFBI Hillsborough) reminded attendees at the ‘Calf event’ that providing 3-4 litres of good quality colostrum (which should provide more than 50g IgG/L) within the first few hours of life can have a positive impact on calf growth, health and future milk production.

Plan to Prevent

Calves face many disease and management challenges in the first year of life, which, if handled incorrectly, can impact on future health and productivity. Aurelie Moralis (BVA NI Branch President) highlighted that balancing and managing the risks of disease are essential for successful prevention. Attendees were also reminded that vaccines are an aid to control disease rather than a cure and that failure to store and administer them correctly can result in ineffective cover. A key message was to always speak to your vet if you are unsure about how to handle, store or administer vaccines!

It’s all about the hygiene!

Calf performance is driven by the management of nutrition, health and the environment in which the calf is reared. As part of the current DAERA funded Optihouse calf housing project, AFBI alongside the CAFRE Dairy Advisory team recently completed calf housing and rearing system assessments on 66 dairy farms across Northern Ireland.

Detailed information on management practices, animal health and performance and the physical characteristics of the rearing house including ventilation and hygiene assessments were recorded.  As expected a large variation in housing design, management and calf and house performance was observed.

The message to producers from Aaron Brown (AFBI Hillsborough) and Jamie Robertson (Livestock Management Systems) was that development of standard hygiene protocols for both rearing facilities and equipment is vital to lower the risk of disease spread in the calf house. The next phase of the project aims to develop custom ‘fixes’ for existing calf houses to help improve hygiene and ventilation within the rearing environment.

What’s next?

Speakers pictured L-R, Jason Rankin (AgriSearch), Steven Morrison (AFBI), Aimee Craig (AFBI), Gillian Scoley (AFBI), Laura Weir (Lisburn Vet Clinic), Aurelie Moralis (BVA NI President), Aaron Brown (AFBI), Jamie Robertson (Livestock Management Systems).
Speakers pictured L-R, Jason Rankin (AgriSearch), Steven Morrison (AFBI), Aimee Craig (AFBI), Gillian Scoley (AFBI), Laura Weir (Lisburn Vet Clinic), Aurelie Moralis (BVA NI President), Aaron Brown (AFBI), Jamie Robertson (Livestock Management Systems).
AFBI are currently involved in a project aiming to help develop, evaluate and implement a veterinary medicine recording and benchmarking system at both farm and individual level. As part of this project, a risk assessment for calf management and environment has been developed as a means of identifying problem areas, providing management advice and monitoring improvements.

Dr Aimee Craig (AFBI Hillsborough) indicated that the risk assessment app is currently being piloted through several local veterinary practices with the aim of large scale release.

Things to remember!

Investing the time in designing and delivering an effective newborn calf management protocol within a rearing environment designed to meet the needs of the calf will help maximise the lifetime performance of your dairy heifers!


Notes to editors: 

AFBI carries out high quality technology research and development, statutory, analytical, and diagnostic testing functions for DAERA and other Government departments, public bodies and commercial companies. 

AFBI's Vision  is “Advancing the Local and Global Agri-Food Sectors Through Scientific Excellence”.

 AFBI's core areas:

  • Leading improvements in the agri food industry;
  • Protecting animal, plant and human health;
  • Enhancing the natural and marine environment.

 All media enquiries to AFBI Press Office 028 9025 5326.

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