Consistency of good behaviours drives calf rearing success

Consistency in all that we do around calves is pivotal to calf health, wellbeing and performance.

This was the overarching message when MaxCare hosted a calf rearing seminar at International Dairy Week in Tatura in January, and a message that continues to remain relevant today.

Tom Newton, who hosted the panel, commented on the intention of the discussion.

“We are conscious that most calf rearing systems are unique in their own way, however, regardless of the system we want to highlight the key fundamentals that need to be focused on every day to deliver happy, healthy, and productive animals no matter what your system is,” he said.

To deliver this message, the panel featured a mix of experiences with Cindy Lucas and Dave Pullen.

Cindy, a contract calf rearer for more than 10 years, collects animals from several farms and generally works with her calves on her own.

Dave, who practised as a veterinarian working across a broad range of farms and rearing systems, is now the dairy manager on a large-scale farm rearing high numbers of calves every day with large teams of staff responsible for different areas of the rearing system.

When asked, Cindy was very clear on the key areas she focuses on every day in her operation.

“We aim to minimise stress by providing consistency in all that we do with and around the calves,” she said.

“We focus on hygiene all the time with everything we do, and we are always observing the animals so we can pick up any calf who is not behaving the way we would expect.”

Dave agreed that consistency was the key.

“It is imperative to have good systems whether you have one or 100 staff,” he said.

“We need to ensure that calves are treated consistently in the correct way. Every day we look for ways we can improve what we do.

“Routine and systems work well for calves and people, and if we do make changes, we ensure they are gradual, so calves are never dealing with more than one stress at a time.”

Both Cindy and Dave agree that good nutrition and consistency in the diet and feeding times are vital, and that colostrum management needs to be a focus with a newborn calf.

With colostrum the emphasis is on delivering a high-quality colostrum as soon as possible after birth, with Dave and his team aiming to administer colostrum within three hours of birth to ensure the best possible absorption of immunoglobulins.

“In situations where you are buying calves in from outside your farm you have limited input or control over some key management areas including heifers, dry cows, calving paddocks, colostrum, initial feeding and the calf environment,” Cindy said.

“The focus and effort put into pre- and post-calving management is repaid with healthier calves.

“It is important to understand that every farm, farmer and herd is different, and it is vital to develop a system that suits each individual circumstance.”

When queried on ways to minimise stress in calves, Dave said calf comfort was essential.

“We focus on providing a warm, dry, draught-free and hygienic environment for all our calves and will wash and dry calves if they are born into unhygienic surroundings,” he said.

Cindy added that, aside from good nutrition, keeping calves happy, healthy and growing was paramount.

“We maintain a consistent routine, and we allow our calves to exhibit their natural behaviours,” she said.

What is measured gets managed and both agreed that every farm should target a zero per cent mortality rate and the importance of investigating the reasons behind any sickness or mortality to identify areas of improvement.

Dave and his team also measure calf weights as they come into the shed and again at weaning so they can monitor output and improve their processes.

In summary, Dave and Cindy both agreed that hygiene, nutrition and comfort were the key areas that farmers need to focus their attention on, with the caveat that consistency in each of these areas every day is vitally important.