10 ways to raise better calves

jersey calf

Photo: Dreamstime

Raising calves can be profitable if you keep in mind these 10 key principles.

Words: Nadene Hall

Source information: Dr Bas Schouten, consultant veterinarian to NRM
1. Select good calves right at the start
Be sure to purchase a good quality calf. This is a calf with a minimum weight of 40kg that is at least 5 days old, looks bright and alert and has a dry, clean navel cord. Any twins or calves that were induced should not be considered no matter how cheap the price. Check a calf’s joints for any sign of swelling and pain – this could be a sign of Joint Ill, an infection that enters the calf through its navel cord and will need treatment with antibiotics. Signs of ill-health in a calf include an animal that is hanging its head looking ‘sad’,

2. Get colostrum in them quickly
A good colostrum intake is vital for animal health and survival. It is vital a calf gets 2 litres of true colostrum (that is, the very first colostrum produced either by its mother or another cow) before it is 6 hours old and at least 4 litres in total within the first 12 hours after birth (2 litres twice a day).
Research shows that a calf is 10 times more likely to die if it hasn’t received enough colostrum. A calf that does receive adequate colostrum can grow up to 20% faster than one that hasn’t.
Always keep some true colostrum in the freezer for emergencies (resealable plastic bags are are good – lay flat so they’re easier to defrost) – it will last for six months when frozen. Colostrum should be thawed in a hot water bath at a maximum temperature of 49°C – that’s roughly as hot as you can hold your hand in for 10 seconds before it becomes intolerable. When feeding out twice a day, always mix up a new batch each time. You will need to feed a calf 10-15% of its body weight in two feeds in the first 12 hours of life then until the third or fourth day. Slowly introduce it to full milk so its rumen gets a chance to adjust.
The only way to check a calf has had enough colostrum is to get its immunoglobulin levels tested – this must be done before a calf is two weeks old and usually costs about $5 per calf. If you can prove your calves did get the correct amount of colostrum you should be able to command a premium price for them.

3. Be careful if buying calves in
Calves should be transported in a covered vehicle with soft clean base of shavings, straw or bark at a minimum depth of 100mm. There must be enough floor space for calves to be able to sit – at least 1sq metre per calf. All calves bought onto the farm should undergo a health check before entry into the calf shelter, including spraying of navel with an iodine-based navel spray. On entry into the barn give calves time to de-stress and feed only electrolytes for the first 12 hours.

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4. Pen size is important
Allow at least 1.5-2.0sq metres per calf and have no more than 10-12 calves per pen. Separate calves by age – each pen should have calves that are of the same age to within seven days – and don’t mix calves. Older calves should be separated from young calves.
Make sure you have a quarantine area or areas to allow you to control disease outbreaks and another sheltered area so you can separate age groups if appropriate.

5. First three weeks should be under cover
Calves must be sheltered for at least three weeks in a dry and draft-free area. The best is a barn that is twice as deep as it is wide. To check for warmth, get down to ground level to see if there are draughts – slats or raised floors are often draughty and less suitable. Bedding should be straw, bark or shavings at least 150mm deep and added to as required, and there must be a way for moisture and other fluids to drain out and away from the shed.
Control rodents and birds to prevent disease transfer. Your barn must be kept clean and there should be a regular cleaning routine using a virucidal spray and hot water on feeding equipment. Restrict who can enter your calf-rearing area, and don’t allow visitors from another farm. Make any other visitors wash their boots in a bath of disinfectant before they come in.

6. Keep gases out
Good ventilation is critical to remove effluent gasses. Ammonia = pneumonia so use a base of sand and clay with a slope to allow drainage.

7. Maintain good feeding schedules
Feed milk or good quality calf milk replacer (CMR) at the rate of at least 10% of the body weight daily (ie a 40kg calf requires at least 4 litres a day). With CMR, follow the recommended mixing rate and volumes on the bag. Don’t overmix CMR – feeding too much or too rich a mixture can make a calf just as sick as under-feeding and is often a cause of terrible scouring. Make changes in volume or strength gradually and allow three days between changes. When animals are under environmental or nutritional stresses, or when recovering from disease challenges, increase CMR concentrate to aid recovery.

8. Milk feeding basics
Best results are achieved if calves are fed twice a day for at least the first 10 days. Feed milk hot (40°C) for at least the first 14 days. It is important to use a teat going to a compartmentalised feeder so greedy calves don’t too much milk. It’s best to have the same person feed the calves each day so they get to know the calves which will make spotting any problems easier. A calf that isn’t performing is easier to see when a person is used to the animals.

9. Concentrates, roughage and water
The earlier a cow’s rumen develops the quicker it will put on weight and that is done by introducing a concentrate early on for them to try. Feed a highly palatable, protein-based concentrate in small amounts (a handful each) from the very first, gradually increasing to 1.5-2kg per day, and allow access to hay or straw. Calves must always have access to clean fresh water at all times from the day they are born.
They can be weaned off milk when they reach your weaning goals, eg 100kg in weight.
Continue meal/pellet supplement for at least one month after weaning off milk at the rate of 1.5-2kg per day.

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10. Animal health is everything
Sterilise barn, bedding and feeding utensils with a proven virucidal spray before entry into the barn and twice weekly. Carefully observe calves daily. Record and treat properly at therapeutic levels.
If a calf starts scouring stop feeding it milk, quarantine it and start it on electrolytes straight away. A scouring calf will often be dehydrated and its upset rumen will not be able to process the milk. There are many different reasons for scouring and a common one for first time calf rearer’s is providing too much milk or too rich a mixture so a feed of electrolytes is often enough to help a calf recover quickly. Once it stops scouring it can be returned and fed as normal.

Scours can also be caused a huge number of bacterial infections and viruses so don’t hesitate to call your vet if you have an animal scouring. Quick reactions at the first sign of trouble will always be cheaper than waiting to see if scouring gets worse.
While bacterial scours can be treated with antibiotics, viral scours are more common and more serious. The one everyone dreads is rotovirus which usually hits at the 2-6 day mark. The scouring will be very yellow and look like mucous. Not only is it highly contagious, it also means everything in your shed must be disinfected.


Tagging a calf. Photo: Dreamstime

3 things you might not know about raising calves
– Research shows women make better calf rearers because they tend to be more patient, have better planning skills and pay more attention to detail which makes them more likely to catch signs of illness at the earliest stage.
– Calf rearing research Dr Pat Muir believes calves benefit from having enough space – about 1.5sq metres per calf – meaning older calves don’t get pushed out into the paddock too soon.
– calves do better on whole milk than on calf milk replacer.
Good calf signs
A healthy calf will be hungry, inquisitive, have bright eyes and a shiny coat. It will be running around and playing with its paddock mates and licking itself. Good health means bright red mucous membranes in the mouth (gums) and inside the eyelid. When it passes faeces these will look and smell normal.

Bad calf signs
A sick calf will usually be passing foul-smelling runny faeces, it won’t want to eat or drink, its coat and eyes will look dull, its ears will droop making it look sad, it will feel cold and perhaps shiver a lot. It won’t be the one running around, it won’t run up at dinner time and it may even be lying down a lot. A sick animal will have pale mucous membranes in the mouth and eyelids, a sign of anaemia. It may be having trouble breathing and be coughing or wheezing a lot.

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Top five reasons for calf deaths
1. Not enough colostrum at birth resulting in lowered immunity
2. Not enough food
3. Diet changed too quickly
4. Incorrect milk due to human error
5. Poor hygiene

Other killers of calves included infection from other calves and dirty paddocks, no shelter and weather conditions too cold and wet
How your calves can make you sick
One of the most dangerous things a dairy farmer does is put on the cups during milking time. Standing at the back end of a cow, he’s not as worried about being kicked or hit by pooh falling from above – it’s the cow’s urine that puts him at most risk.
The most commonly transmitted infection from animals to humans is Leptospirosis and people are usually exposed to it from to infected urine. Any contact with contaminated water, moist soil, vegetation or infected organs can also cause the disease. Infection may enter the body through cuts and cracks in the skin or through the membranes of the eyes, nose and mouth.
You may be in danger if you assist with calving, handle infected afterbirth or aborted fetuses, touch the placenta, kidneys or the bladder or milk, move, mark or drench, unvaccinated animals.
Infected animals may not show effects of the disease. If you or someone on your property catches Leptospirosis you must tell OSH as it is a notifiable disease.

Symptoms of Letospirosis may include severe and persistent headaches, jaundice (yellowing or darkening of the skin, whites of eyes and urine), vomiting and loss of appetite, a high fever, sweating chills and rigors, muscular pains, eye irritation and vision problems. People with Leptospirosis can become severely ill and may need to be hospitalised.

How to avoid it
– Have a vaccination program for all stock
– Avoid urine splashes or any contact with urine
– Wear appropriate protective equipment such as waterproof clothing, gloves, overalls, gumboots and face shields
– Keep cuts, scratches and skin breaks covered. Change band-aids regularly and cover with gloves
– Wash and dry hands regularly, especially before eating, smoking or touching the face. Wash with disinfectant after urine splashes. Have water, soap and disposable towels or tissues for washing close by and make any helpers use these before leaving the property or going inside
– Contact a doctor within 24 hours of suspected exposure or if flu-like symptoms develop
– Practice good personal hygiene but avoid harsh scrubbing of hands as it may cause breaks in the skin

NZ Life and Leisure This article first appeared in NZ Lifestyle Block Magazine.
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