Calving in Dairy herds

It’s well worth reviewing the basics of calf rearing on your farm before the new arrivals make an appearance. Vet gives some pointers.

Many of our clients are now stocking up for a busy spring for calving. It’s well worth reviewing the basics of calf-rearing on your farm before the new arrivals make an appearance. I recently visited a dairy client who will focus on reducing calf mortality as one of his Knowledge Transfer targets.

He has already installed a single-unit milking machine in the calving area. He bottle feeds every calf shortly after being born and is amazed at the volume they consume.

Our conversation highlighted how a focus on colostrum management at farm level is pivotal to the rearing of healthy calves and will have far-reaching benefits in terms of protecting calves from disease and therefore maximising their future productivity and profitability.

With the current desire to reduce antibiotic usage, it makes sense to maximise the calf’s immunity with the natural protection available in the dam’s colostrum.


Although your calves may receive colostrum, the quality of the colostrum received cannot be accurately assessed by looking at milk or by knowing the parity of the cow. An easy and affordable method of testing colostrum quality on the farm is a simple hand-held device called a Brix refractometer (available from your vet). If colostrum is <50 mg/mL IgG, then it should be avoided and good-quality frozen colostrum fed instead. Remember, your colostrum can be contaminated by bacteria during collection, storage or feeding using unclean buckets or tanks – good hygiene practises are key. Quality is affected by age, diet and particularly vaccination status of the cow.


The timing of the first feed of colostrum is crucial to the newborn calf achieving passive immunity from the dam. The calf’s intestine will only absorb antibodies from the colostrum in the first 24 hours. Aim to feed colostrum as soon as possible after birth when the suck reflex is strongest; the calf’s ability to absorb antibodies is halved within six hours.


The 1-2-3 rule of thumb is a good guideline. Feed minimum three litres of colostrum (or 8.5% of bodyweight) within two hours from the dam’s first milking. Failure of the calf to absorb sufficient amounts of antibodies (IgG) from the colostrum is called failure of passive transfer. Calves can be blood tested for IgG levels if poor colostrum transfer is suspected in the herd. Less than 5.5G/dl indicates successful transfer of antibodies.

If you have the knowledge, you can plan ahead. Colostrum management is the single-most important factor in giving your calves a great start to life.


Antibiotics use falling in the UK


Reducing antibiotics use is part of plans to combat drug-resistant diseases.

The UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) recorded record low sales of antibiotics for use in livestock last year and more ambitious targets are on the way. 

According to a new government report to be published this Friday, sales of veterinary antibiotics relative to the UK’s food-producing animal population dropped by 27% between 2014 and 2016.

While there were 62mg of antibiotics sold per kg of livestock biomass in 2014, this fell to 45mg/kg last year. According to DEFRA, this surpasses the 50mg/kg target set for the industry.

“The fact we have overtaken our target two years ahead of schedule demonstrates our commitment to preventing the inappropriate use of antibiotics and shows our approach is working,” said DEFRA Minister for Rural Affairs and Biosecurity, Lord Gardiner. “Now we must continue making progress and set our sights on reducing use even further.”

Drug-resistant superbugs

The industry group Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture (RUMA) is expected to announce new targets later on Friday to reduce antibiotics use in the future.

Efforts to reduce antibiotics use in humans and animals are part of a plan to tackle anti-microbial resistance and avoid the emergence of drug-resistant superbugs.

The latest EU-wide comparison of antibiotics use is for 2014 and shows the UK to be among the most moderate users, with less than half the European average rate.

Cerebrocortical Necrosis (CCN)

Cerebrocortical necrosis (CCN) – a nervous disease in cattle and sheep caused by disrupted thiamine production in the body. 

One evening recently, a client phoned saying he had a bullock that was on grass and behaving very unusually. He was falling on the ground and paddling, trying to get up but on getting his legs under him failing to rise and ending up in a dog-sitting position with his head held high and shaking. The animal was about 550kg and was on the farm about a month and was on a field of lush grass.

The symptoms were definitely those of a brain problem. At this stage, the diagnosis is a process of elimination as the following conditions come to mind: meningitis, listeriosis, lead poisoning, injury, tetany (very rare in male cattle), and cerebrocortical necrosis or CCN.

In the case of meningitis, one would expect a more gradual onset and probably an elevated temperature; listeriosis would likely have the animal walking in circles, again with an elevated temperature, and would not have come on as suddenly.

Lead poisoning will come on very suddenly if the animal had access to lead (in batteries, old painted gates or old horse carts, etc.) This was unlikely, given that this field is in pasture a long time and not near a public road from which hazardous material could have been thrown.

The most likely diagnosis was CCN. The animal was treated for this and while his prospects at the time looked poor, he had made an excellent recovery by the next morning.

Cerebrocortical (CCN) is a nervous disease seen in cattle and sheep that is caused by disrupted thiamine production in the body. Thiamine is necessary in glucose metabolism that, when deficient, is most threatening to nervous activity. Cattle and sheep diagnosed with CCN exhibit muscle tremors, blindness, disoriented movement and eventually fatality, if left untreated

Ruminants have working rumen bacteria that synthesise thiamine for the body. However, feed concentrates given to ruminants are often heavily stocked with thiaminases, which counter its production. High levels of sugars in feed can also result in thiamine inadequacy.

When there is a sudden increase of glucose in the body, thiamine will be depleted so that it is not available, resulting in induced deficiency. High concentrations of sulphur intake has also been deemed responsible for CCN. Sulphur is necessary for the synthesis of important sulphur-containing amino acids and proteins.

Luscious grass high in sugars and sulphates are seen as a likely predisposing factor to CCN. Immediate treatment is absolutely necessary to prevent death. The only advice one can give in seeking to prevent it is to make sure there is enough fibre in the diet.

Finishing Beef cattle this winter

Outlined are 10 steps which can help you to make finishing cattle a more profitable operation for your farm business.

1 Budget: before you decide to finish cattle, you should carry out a few simple sums to see what costs are going to be involved in bringing the animal through to point of slaughter.

Always use costs and a beef price that is reflective of your typical farm inputs and cattle type.

If you have R grading cattle, then use a price that reflects this. Using an unrealistic price will make the exercise pointless.

The budget can also help to indicate what you can afford to pay for store cattle in the mart and, in some cases, it may direct you to changing from buying U grade animals to R and O+ types.

2 Know your market: to get the best possible price for your cattle, you should be focused on delivering carcases that meet market specification on weight and conformation.

For example, processors have fewer market options for bulls that are over 16 months, or carcase weights in excess of 420kg.

Having cattle that are consistently finished to market spec can be an advantage at times when processors are well-supplied with cattle, as you may avoid a delay in getting animals slaughtered.

3 Monitor weight gain: weighing cattle will give you a sound base to work from at the start of the finishing period.

Use this weight as part of your finishing budget as it will improve the accuracy of your finishing costs and break even prices. This will help you to make a more informed decision.

Once you have started to intensively feed cattle, weigh them approximately every 30 days to monitor daily liveweight gain, and also as an indicator of when the animals might be ready for slaughter.

When weighing, bring cattle out of the pens in their group and weigh one pen at a time, to help keep stress to a minimum.

4 Monitor feed costs: knowing the daily weight gain in finishing cattle allows you to work out the margin the animal is generating, in terms of carcase value, every day it is on farm.

From this, you can calculate the margin over feed costs. For instance, a steer gaining 1kg/day of liveweight will be gaining 0.55kg/day of carcase at 55% kill-out. At a beef price of £3.60/kg, the animal is generating £1.98 every day during the feeding period.

But, assuming the steer is eating 20kg of silage (£25/t) and 7kg of meal (£210/t), it has a daily feed cost of £1.97/day.

Therefore, the animal is just covering feeds costs at the outlined weight gain and beef price. Fixed costs are excluded from this.

Once the animal is at a suitable fat cover, you should market without delay as there is no economic advantage in holding it to reach a heavier carcase weight.

5 Group cattle to size and finish date: once weighed, group cattle according to liveweight and target sale date. This will cut down on the amount of bullying, or aggressive behaviour in the pen.

Grouping animals based on size or kill date will allow you to sell them as a group. You do not want to be drafting animals from several pens this winter, and then regrouping the remaining animals, as this can lead to increased aggression among cattle, especially bulls.

6 Housing space: when cattle are finished indoors, make sure they have adequate lying space. Remember that space allowance will decrease as animals get heavier.

For instance, for a group of eight bulls weighing 550kg at housing, and at a daily weight gain of 1.5kg/day, there will be an extra 84kg of liveweight in the pen each week. After seven weeks, there is the equivalent of an extra animal in the pen.

Over 100 days, the weight gained is the equivalent of adding an extra two animals to the group, which means animals can be overstocked without you realising. This will have a negative impact on performance.

Therefore, always pen animals based on finishing weight to make sure they have adequate lying space.

7 Animal health: finishing cattle perform best when they are in good health and free of parasites. Make sure animals have been properly wormed before they start the intensive feeding period. Also, given the wet second half of the year, fluke could be a concern this winter. Animals should either be dosed using a suitable product, or dung samples taken to determine infection status.

If cattle are bought in, isolate from the main herd for a period of 10 to 14 days. This will allow animals time to settle and show symptoms of any respiratory problems arising from the stress of moving onto a new farm.

Using an IBR vaccine is advisable on farms where cattle are regularly bought in for finishing, and on suckler to beef units with a history of respiratory issues.

Keep a close eye on the withdrawal dates for any treatments given to cattle.

8 Keep finishing diet simple: finishing diets should be kept simple. Rations should be high in energy, and lower in protein, than general-purpose beef mixes.

Whether you purchase rations, or mix your own feed, energy levels should be a minimum of 12.5 ME.

Protein levels should be kept to around 13%, if you want to get animals to an adequate fat cover, especially bulls.

Key ingredients include barley and maize, along with a limited protein source such as soya or distillers.

Straights that are high in digestible fibre, eg soya hulls or sugar beet pulp, can also be added.

When moving cattle from the growing ration to the finishing ration, do so gradually. Increase the levels of the finishing ration offered to animals over the course of one week to 10 days. When offering more than 4kg or 5kg of concentrate, it is advisable to split into two feeds.

If building up to ad-lib feed levels, do so over a period of 10 to 14 days to avoid any potential issues with acidosis.

9 Set a limit to the finishing period: There is little performance benefit in intensively feeding continental steers beyond 100 days. For early maturing traditional beef breeds, this feeding period can be reduced to 80 days.

Heifers will mature earlier than steers, so limit the feeding period to 50 to 80 days depending on breed type.

Bulls can be fed for 150 to 200 days on an intensive finishing diet and still give high levels of performance and remain lean.

Therefore, it is important that you are feeding continental animals the correct ration so that they have adequate fat cover when slaughtered.

10 Sell cattle in batches: cattle should be sold once they meet the required level of fat cover and finishing weight. Holding animals beyond this point will offer no real economic benefit as the larger an animal gets, the less efficient it becomes at converting feed to lean muscle.

There is also the risk of cattle falling out of market spec, which devalues the sale price.

If cattle have been correctly grouped for finishing at housing, they can be sold in batches which will help you to negotiate on price when talking to your meat processor.

Shortage of Vets

The Brexit referendum is taking its toll on the veterinary industry, with one in five saying that recruitment is harder. 

The British Veterinary Association (BVA) is concerned about the recruitment and retention of staff post-Brexit.

They told the UK Migration Advisory Committee this week that if there are no appropriate immigration measures put in place then a large gap in the 23,000-strong veterinary workforce will appear.

BVA research indicates about one fifth of vets are already finding vet recruitment harder. Over half of vets registering in the UK each year come from overseas, mostly the EU.

Three quarters may go

The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons has commissioned research which shows nearly a third of EU vets and vet nurses are considering moving back home.

The Migratory Committee also heard that all 128,000 EU nationals working in Scotland contribute an average of £34,400 each to gross domestic product, according to the Scottish Government.

Infectious diseases

Separately, the Federation of Veterinarians of Europe (FVE)has called on Brexit negotiators not to jeopardise current high levels of animal health and welfare.

“Infectious diseases don’t respect borders, so assuring animal health, public health, food safety 

and animal welfare require an international approach,” FVE president Rafael Laguens said.

For every animal or animal product that is imported or exported, specially trained official veterinarians must certify and supervise the process to and from third countries, facilitating smooth trade.

The plea calls for the EU and UK to commit to a single standard that will help avoid confusion and the opportunity for fraud.

The group also called for continued EU-wide mutual recognition of veterinary degrees, given the mobility of the profession across Europe.

Clipping cattle going into beef units

Clipping hair off the back of cattle can help reduce animals overheating in sheds, especially in weanlings or intensively fed cattle, as it helps to keep animals cooler and reduces heat stress in a heavily stocked shed.

When clipping cattle, the more hair removed from the animal’s back, the better.

Taking at least three runs either side of the spine will help to reduce sweating when housed. Trimming the tail may also help to keep cattle cleaner.

Clipping will also help reduce the incidence of lice on cattle. On some farms, a lice treatment will be needed later on during the housing period.

WHO on antibiotics

The World Health Organization has recommended that farmers and those involved in the production of food stop using antibiotics to promote growth and prevent disease in healthy animals.

The recommendations are part of new guidelines from the WHO on what constitutes inappropriate use of antibiotics in the food chain, with the aim of tackling one of the main causes of antimicrobial resistance.

The organisation says overuse and misuse of antibiotics in animals and humans is contributing to the rising threat of antibiotic resistance.

According to the WHO, in some countries around 80% of the total consumption of medically-important antibiotics happens in the animal sector and largely this is for growth promotion in healthy animals.

Overall the WHO strongly recommends an overall reduction in the use of all classes of medically-important antibiotics in food-producing animals.

It says this should include a restriction of the use of these antibiotics for growth promotion and disease prevention, unless diagnosis has been made.

The WHO says healthy animals should only receive antibiotics to prevent disease if it has been diagnosed in other animals in the same flock, herd or fish population.

It also calls for antibiotics that are being used on farm animals to be selected from a list that it deems to be of lowest importance to human health.

Antibiotics that are considered to be in the last line of defence for humans should not be used at all it says.

It recommends that where possible animals should be tested to determine the most appropriate form of medicine for their illness.

“Scientific evidence demonstrates that overuse of antibiotics in animals can contribute to the emergence of antibiotic resistance,” says Dr Kazuaki Miyagishima, Director of the Department of Food Safety and Zoonoses at WHO.

“The volume of antibiotics used in animals is continuing to increase worldwide, driven by a growing demand for foods of animal origin, often produced through intensive animal husbandry.”

Research published in The Lancet Planetary Health found that when antibiotic use in food-producing animals is restricted then antibiotic-resistant bacteria in these animals fell by up to 39%.

The EU has already banned the use of antibiotics for growth promotion, but these new recommendations from the WHO go further.

Reacting to the news the  Farmer groups  said it was critically important that decisions are strongly supported by factual evidence.

It said prolonging the effectiveness of antibiotics for humans and animals is a key objective for everyone and requires a multi-faceted fact-based long-term approach.

The use of antibiotics on farms is already heavily regulated, with all products available only under veterinary prescription to farmers. Retailers also have a huge role to play in ensuring their tactics are not forcing producers to produce food at prices below the cost of production.

Dosing – no longer a blanket approach

Heavy worm and fluke burdens can cause large reductions in animal performance.  

Due to the recent poor weather and deteriorating ground conditions, housing is a hot topic. When we consider housing, the next thing that springs to mind is dosing. It is well known that heavy worm and fluke burdens can cause large reductions in animal performance.

With a huge amount of products on the market, it can be difficult to decide which product is the best for your farm. In the past, treatment with anthelmintics (fluke and worm dose) was often calendar based, regardless of whether a high burden of fluke and worms was present. However, this is no longer a recommended practice as anthelmintics are a limited resource, with resistance to products becoming more apparent.

The most economic and efficient way to find out what product will work best for your farm and when to utilise it is to use diagnostic tests, namely faecal egg count (FEC), monitoring or bulk milk sampling. These are tools that can help determine what product is necessary or if dosing can be safely delayed. Faecal samples are taken from a subset of animals (10% of group) depending on their size and age (eg weanlings, heifers, adult cows). Samples are then tested to quantify lungworm, roundworm, tapeworm, liver fluke and rumen fluke. Additionally, bulk milk samples can monitor the level of liver fluke and roundworm. By using diagnostic tests, targeted selective treatment can be tailored to each farm situation.

When dosing, correct weight assessment of the animals is essential to avoid under- or over-dosing. Additionally, it is recommended to avoid repeated use of the same product year on year, as it can lead to resistance to a particular product. Products should always be stored according to the manufacturers’ guidelines and never used out of date.

Ectoparasites (mites and lice) are at their highest populations during winter. These parasites cause itchiness and irritation, leading to a reduction in feeding and subsequent weight loss. It may be necessary to apply an appropriate product to kill these ectoparasites at the time of housing and again as necessary.

It is important to monitor the withdrawal periods in relation to any product used. As beef cattle and store lambs are readied for the factory, meat withdrawals need to be adhered to. With milk prices remaining high going into the latter part of the year, leading to a shorter dry period, it may be necessary to dose lactating cows before drying off and so milk withdrawals need to be observed.

Minimising disease in weanlings at housing

The main problem encountered by farmers currently housing weanlings is the dreaded pneumonia. When an outbreak occurs, it has a huge financial effect, which sometimes goes undetected.

Sure, we all see the cost in an expensive weanling bought in the mart dying due to the disease and the expensive drugs used to treat animals infected, but sometimes we don’t see the hidden costs due to lack of performance, chronically infected cattle pining and the labour costs. If a plan is put into place pre-housing, these risks can be reduced dramatically.

  • Weanlings should be bought from as few sources of origin as possible and movements into the shed should be kept to a minimum. It can be a good idea to have a quarantine area in a separate air space to the main shed where the weanlings can be kept for two to three weeks before introduction to the main herd.
  • The shed itself is critical. Overcrowding should be avoided. Each weanling should have 1.1m2 of space and adequate barrier space. The shed should be well ventilated. There should be at least a 0.6m3 air outlet space per animal and two to four times this for air inlet. It’s important that the air inlet is at a level above the height of the animal and that the animal doesn’t get wet.
  • Stress should be kept to a minimum. Weaning outdoors over a gradual period of time, introduction to a creep feed and allowing weanlings to see and hear their mothers can greatly reduce the stress at weaning. It would also be advisable to avoid dehorning and castration at this time.
  • Dosing for lungworm and gut worm is very important in pre-housed animals. It’s important that the cattle are housed with a healthy pair of lungs not damaged by worms. This can be achieved by getting veterinary input into a dosing programme for the herd. Faecal egg counts can be carried out to assess the liver fluke burden and treated accordingly.
  • If there is a history of pneumonia in the herd or there are large numbers of weanlings in the shed, a vaccination programme is a must. The common viruses and bacteria that cause pneumonia such as IBR, RSV, PI3, BVD, Pasturella, Mannheimia and Histophilus can be controlled using vaccines and, with veterinary input, a suitable programme can be put in place to greatly reduce the risk of an outbreak.
  • Any animals that show signs of pneumonia should be immediately removed to an isolation area that is in a separate air space to the main shed to try to reduce the risk of other animals getting sick.