Healthy calves, healthy profit

John and Anna Booth from Rhual Dairy, joined by Dr Robert Hyde from the University of Nottingham, share their experience of improving calf health.

John and Anna have been involved in a trial run by the University of Nottingham looking at the factors affecting calf health. The study found key areas that make a big difference to the health of calves, which in turn, increases farm profit.

Importance of feeding colostrum

Calves are born with no immunity, so it is important they are fed 3-4 litres of colostrum as soon as possible after birth and always within six hours.

Quality is important and it is a good idea to test colostrum using a Brix Refractometer. If the quality is low, you can feed more or use stored colostrum of higher quality.

Taking blood samples with your vet means you can check how well immunity has been transferred to calves. If transfer is poor, you can manage calves in a way that reduces the chance of disease.

All equipment used in the collection and feeding of colostrum should be thoroughly cleaned between each use, ideally with hot water and hypochlorite or paracetic acid.

The trial showed calves that were fed more milk had better daily liveweight gains and so should be fed at least 6-8 litres of milk a day.

Take a look at the 3 Qs of feeding colostrum for more information.

Tips for calf housing

How housing is managed is much more important than the type of housing.

Temperature is important, the trial showed calves in warmer buildings grew better because they were not using energy to keep warm.

Good ventilation is important for disease control but draughts should be avoided. Straw bales can be used in pens to create shelter if a draught is identified.

Calves should be well bedded – legs should not be visible when lying down. If fully bedding a pen is not possible, try to do at least half so calves have a choice. Straw should be kept clean and dry.

To reduce disease challenge, calving pens should be cleaned out at least once every three weeks and calf pens should be cleaned out at least once a month.

Take a look at our Better calf housing guide for more information.

Calf growth rates

Monitoring growth rates pre-weaning is important - there is a proven link between good growth rates and first lactation yield.

You can monitor with your vet or using the Herd health tool kit

John and Anna used to weigh calves when they dosed them, but they now weigh with calf tape at birth and weaning.

They aim for heifers to calve at 22-24 months so they need to achieve a growth rate of 0.8kg/day.

Rhual Dairy’s calf health plan

John and Anna have good colostrum management. They wash the cow first and collect colostrum in a sterile dump bucket. Colostrum is then tested and the best batches are frozen so they know they have a good supply in stock if they need it. If cows are at risk of Johne’s or Neospora they won’t use their colostrum and instead feed calves from their store.

As a result of the trial, John and Anna made some changes to calf management. They don’t overstock the shed and make sure they don’t mix calves of different ages to reduce the risk of pneumonia.

They use jackets in winter but realised they may be taking them off too soon and so are going to trial leaving them on a bit longer. They will also make sure jackets are thoroughly cleaned between uses.

Dr Hyde suggested they feed more milk and so they are going to try feeding 6 litres a day and by monitoring growth rates they can see if that makes a difference.

Herd health toolkit

Nottingham University has developed a free Herd Health Toolkit which is an evidence-based tool to help improve the health and welfare of cattle on UK farms.