Managing the Spring Born Calf

With calving in full swing across the UK, there will inevitably be immense pressures on transition cows, new born calves, the environment they are in and the staff managing the herds. Due to the nature of a tight spring calving pattern dry cow/calving pens are often overstocked at peak, creating inadequate conditions for the calf to be born into, having a detrimental effect on both transition cows and the new arrival.

There are many aspects of the calf’s first few hours we could discuss here but, for this post, I will be focussing on the importance of the environment.

The calf temperature, particularly at this time of year when snow is likely, is key; a calf loses heat four times faster to the floor than standing up. If the outside temperature drops below 12 degrees it will begin using it’s energy to stay warm and there is an even greater need to feed Calf Milk Replacer (CMR).

Calf jackets

A calf wearing a Wynnstay calf jacket
A calf jacket in use

Harper Adams University, in conjunction with Wynnstay, performed a trial with calves and the effectiveness of calf jackets. The results from the trial were clear: using coats on calves born between December and February added more than 5kg to calves’ overall weight gain up to 12 weeks.

As part of the study, 40 two-week-old calves were split into two groups and housed in individual straw-bedded pens. Both groups were fed a warm whey-based milk replacer twice a day before being offered ad-lib 18% CP early weaning concentrates, until weaning at 42 days.

At weaning the calves were put into a group pen until 12 weeks. One group was given coats and the other group went without. Growth rates were recorded from two weeks to 12 weeks.

The study found that calves with coats recorded higher daily liveweight gains and overall gained an additional 5.3kg of weight up to week 12.

Nesting score

Nesting score is also a very good measure for the quality of bedding and warmth provided in the calf pen. Not only will a deep bed keep the calf warm, it will also reduce the prevalence of disease.

Looking at the examples in the illustration below, nesting score 1 is poor and all the calf’s body and legs are visible, nesting score 2 shows legs partially visible when lying down, while nesting score 3 shows the legs not visible when lying down. This is has a direct correlation with the squelch test. The squelch test is very simple and can be carried out by kneeling down in the pen; if the knees get moist the bedding isn’t dry enough for a calf!

With a tight calving pattern the number of calves appearing on-farm can result in a higher stocking density might be desirable.

Lackham College conducted a trial relating to calf stocking densities in 2008. They found that if calves had a space of 2m² there was a 42% chance of pneumonia, whereas if calves had 4m² pneumonia cases were drastically reduced – in fact there was a 100% improvement. The daily live weight gain increased from 0.74kg/day to 0.9kg/day. The health costs of a greater space per calf reduced from £14 to £8 a calf.

Heinrichs and Heinrichs (2011) found that heifers born from a difficult birth had significantly lower milk production in their first lactation. It is of paramount importance the calf has a clean dry bed to land on and quick ingestion of good colostrum. This sounds easy enough, but when you have several cows calving per day, calves can easily be neglected. This can send the calf into the rearing phase at a huge disadvantage, creating costly implications going forward.

For busy spring calvers specifically, it is vital to have a good protocol in place so that all calves can have the best start in life. Heifer replacements need looking after and the data shows a ‘bad’ start in life strongly effects the first lactation yield and beyond.

If you would like advice on your calves, their environment or calf jackets, please contact one of the Dairy or Calf Specialists at Wynnstay.

Tom Stephenson
Dairy Specialist



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