Milk Watch with Boehringer Ingelheim

Milk Watch: Focus on calf rearing after pneumonia cases

Attention turns to youngstock housing as our Milk Watch farmers prepare for winter and assess forage stocks and quality following an unseasonal month of wet weather.

On Higher Ashton Farm in Dorset, Milk Watch farmer Sam Foot is contemplating his calf rearing enterprise. His mind has been focused on the whole strategy this month as several calves have contracted pneumonia, which he says is bitterly disappointing and unusual for the time of year.

“We don’t usually get much pneumonia,” he says. “But if we do, it tends to be in December and January.

“I’ve no idea why it’s occurred this early, although I suppose the weather has been like winter.

“It’s the most heart-breaking thing to see,” he says, “as apart from the suffering of the calf at the time, you know she will probably have permanent damage.”

And while any animal that is spotted with the condition will be swiftly treated with antibiotics and a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory, getting to the root of the problem is considered to be a priority.

The calf buildings themselves are one area of consideration and these have been carefully adapted from old dairy buildings.

“Before the calves went in we did air inlet and outlet calculations and I’m confident the ventilation is pretty good,” says Mr Foot.

“Draft-exclusion is good, with straw bales placed on the ends of rows and at the back of pens.”

But with 130 calves already in these pens he observes that the 40 housed outside in hutches have better health and are all pneumonia-free.

“The calves certainly do well in hutches but you really need 500 of them to fully automate the process,” he believes. “Otherwise it’s too labour intensive - although it’s true the cost of pneumonia is massive in comparison.”


Another area of focus is on maximising colostrum intake to boost the calves’ immunity.

“I’m sure we should get more colostrum into them but it’s not always as easy as it sounds,” he says. “We have gone through spates of tubing at birth, but it’s hard work, it’s not easy to get the temperature right, and the calves don’t like it,” he says.

Although twins and calves with difficulties will still be tubed, he says the general policy is to leave the calf with its mother for 12 to 24 hours and to subsequently return mothers to calves twice a day for their first three or four days of life.

“The best long-term approach as far as I’m concerned is breeding the right type of cow,” he says. “Our whole aim is to use high health trait bulls to breed us the rougher, tougher type with more get-up-and-go.

“We certainly think we’re achieving this with the ‘Oman type’ whose influence you can see in the calves just as you can in the mature milking cows.”

Tim Gue

Tim Gue says the new youngstock shed has helped with calf health.

Yields down as preparations for winter begin

As in so many herds across the UK, Milk Watch farmer Tim Gue says his cows are a little ‘off the pace’.

At 30 litres a day, they are milking, on average, a litre less than this time last year, which is the first time for many years there has not been a year-on-year increase in the Sussex-based Huddlestone herd.

With 28 hectares (70 acres) of maize harvested in late September, in the ‘last few days of decent weather’, it is now a case of waiting for conditions to improve and the remaining crop to mature before the remaining 81ha (200 acres) come off the fields.

“This is the first year for as long as I can remember when we’ve completely run out of maize, so we had no alternative but to start feeding the crop the day after it came in,” says Mr Gue.

“Ideally, we would have an extra clamp and be feeding six-month-old maize silage,” he says, “but this was not an option.”

Describing the crop as ‘unimpressive’ in terms of yields, he says the thin plant population had cobbed up well to give a higher quality silage than he ‘had any right to expect’.

“It is 30 per cent dry matter and 32 per cent starch, and milk went up a couple of litres once we started to feed it,” he says.

Elsewhere on the farm, preparations are in hand for winter, with youngstock housing being adapted for the youngest calves on the farm.

Straw shelters

“This will be our second winter in the new youngstock shed, which last year’s calves came through really well,” he says. “But this year we’ll put in some straw shelters to create a more favourable micro-climate for the youngest calves when it’s really cold.

“At the end of the day, you will never have a building that’s perfect for every age group,” he says. “And if it’s warm enough for the youngest calves in the middle of winter, it’s probably not well enough ventilated for the rest of the year.”

However, the combination of good ventilation and new protocols for the prevention of respiratory disease seems to have kept pneumonia at bay.

“We’ve had very few cases in the new shed,” says Mr Gue, “and as soon as we hear any coughing we will take the calf’s temperature and give anything with a high reading a dose of antibiotics and a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory to see it back on track.”

A Vet’s View

By Oli Hodgkinson, Trefaldwyn Veterinary Clinic

THE average cost of a case of pneumonia is estimated at £43 for dairy and £82 for beef.

With the advent of effective vaccines we tend to reach for the bottle to prevent pneumonia. However, there are some very important management factors to consider.

Poor ventilation is common, but minor modifications to buildings can help improve air flow.

It is important not to overstock sheds and keep the environment dry. The removal of soiled bedding helps, and also reduces ammonia.

It is also a good idea to avoid mixing age groups, as older animals often carry the bugs without showing signs of illness.


Try not to disturb calving cows, as if calving is interrupted the calf may be starved of oxygen and consequently may be very dopey, which can predispose a calf to pneumonia.

A freshly born dairy calf requires at least six pints of colostrum in the first six hours of life, with a total of six litres in 24 hours. This colostrum provides antibodies to diseases and is an excellent source of energy. A frozen colostrum bank, from cows on your farm, will contain the antibodies which are protective against the bugs on your farm.

Colostrum helps protect against pneumonia for the first four months of life and is essential to prevent problems including scours, joint ill and septicaemia.

Poorly nourished calves are more likely to succumb to disease so providing good quality forage from racks and fresh

water at all times are basic requirements. Try to avoid sudden changes in diet, as this can cause scouring and lower the immune system’s ability to fight off disease.

Animals which are stressed are less able to fight off infections so avoid carrying out more than one stressful procedure at a time, for example housing and dehorning.

The energy a calf spends trying to keep itself warm could be used for growing. Making shelters at the back of pens allows the calves to stay warmer and consequently healthier.

Calf hutches also allow calves to regulate their own environment by going outside if they are too hot or sitting down in the kennels if they are cold, and individual hutches reduce the spread of disease between animals.

It is not possible to vaccinate against all the bugs which can cause pneumonia, so choose the right vaccine for your specific management system.

Spotting pneumonia early means cases can be treated quickly and effectively, avoiding reduced growth rates and lung damage. Work with your vet for appropriate treatment regimes, which may include antibiotics, long acting NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) and other supportive therapy.

Metacam for cattle

This series is brought to you by Boehringer Ingelheim Ltd, the makers of Metacam®
Advice on the use of Metacam 20mg/ml for cattle, pigs and horses or other therapies should be sought from your veterinary surgeon. Metacam 20mg/ml for cattle, pigs and horses contains meloxicam. Prescription only medicine. Further information available from Boehringer Ingelheim Vetmedica, Bracknell, Berkshire, RG12 8YS, UK. Email:
Date of preparation: Apr 2012. AHD7174.

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