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Veterinary perspectives on heifer management

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01 July 2017, at 1:00am

RICHARD GARD examines how one dairy herd has experimented with individual calf management but then fell foul of the rules, and asks: are the regulations backed up by science?

THERE IS A PERCEIVED WISDOM that the most effective way to reduce disease in cattle herds is to look to the buildings. An example of this veterinary truth has led to significant head-scratching and a call for a major review of the rules and regulations governing calves. The good news is that a highperforming dairy herd had a major issue with pneumonia and now it doesn’t. Pneumonia is a routine problem for many herds, but the impact of disease on this farm was carefully observed. Calves were typically contracting pneumonia at three weeks of age. Calves that were treated and survived would often relapse some 10 weeks later. Moving forward, heifers were served and calved down and started their first lactation, but some died and others did not yield well. On examination, the problem was chronic lung congestion. The impact on the farmer from trying to control the disease was clearly financial, but also personal, in that he and his staff disliked having diseased animals. It was decided that incidences of pneumonia in the three- to four-month-old calves that had a history of the disease were likely to have a poor resolution from further treatment. These animals were shot. Following a thorough veterinary review, the baby calves were managed individually, in hutches, at a set-up cost of £20,000. The three-week pneumonia cases stopped. After weaning, the calves were grouped in fives, in a larger hutch, until being combined again in three groups of five and moving on to service groups of up to 40 animals. This larger group stays together until calving and lactation. Initially there were still pneumonia cases later in the production chain but, as the baby individually managed calves moved on, the incidence fell until two years later the herd use of antibiotics for pneumonia had fallen dramatically. One set of figures, following groups throughout, shows a fall of 80% in antibiotic treatments. With pneumonia no longer a problem, the farmer extended the weaning period for an extra two weeks. Individually fed, with £20 extra milk powder, the larger calves then moved to a group of five and then into the established system. The target weight for servicing is 360 to 380 kilos bodyweight. Heifers that received the extra duration of milk were served at 10/11 months of age and considered to be leaner and fitter. The younger weaned calves used to achieve service weight later and were at risk from being too fat. Furthermore, the heifers served earlier and calved earlier had better first lactation yields and a better conception rate to service for the second lactation. In parallel, the bull calves were reared in hutches in groups of five from the outset. Pneumonia in these animals also fell dramatically, but these calves suffer more from scour. “If one gets it, they all get it” is the observation of the farmer.

Individual management

Consideration is being given to introducing individual calf management for all calves. One of the issues with the groups of five is that there is competition between the calves for food and weak or unhealthy calves can be badly disadvantaged. The bigger
and stronger the calf, the less likely this happens and so the extra milk fed to the heifer calves also allows them to compete better when mixed. All calves benefit from a strict colostrum management and pasteurisation system. Quite a success story until along comes the farm inspector. She recognises that, while recording ear tag numbers, not a single calf was heard to cough. The management of the feed, colostrum and condition of the animals was very good and the reduction of antibiotic use complies
with the general approach to antimicrobial resistance targets; but she notes that calves were in individual hutches at nine weeks of age. The rules state: No calf may be confined in an individual stall or pen after the age of eight weeks unless a veterinary surgeon
certifies that its health or behaviour requires it to be isolated in order to receive treatment. The farmer was fined 1% of the Single Farm Payment for the year and warned that it could be 5% with a repeat infringement. There is an additional rule that is relevant:
Individual stalls or pens for calves (except for those isolating sick animals) must have perforated walls which allow calves to have
direct visual and tactile contact. The two rules have been law in
England since 2007 and are included in: The Welfare of Farmed Animals Regulations; the DEFRA guidelines for cross-compliance 2017; the Red Tractor Assurance for Dairy Farms; the AHDB Dairy Best Practice Guide; and the RSPCA welfare standards for dairy cattle. The farmer is forced to abandon the extra two weeks of milk feed and forego the early servicing and health benefits that are attributed to that detail of individual calf management. Disadvantaged calves within the groups of five are likely to require careful attention so that each calf receives the desired level of feeding. It is of concern that the incidence of scour will rise through cross-infection. Also of concern is the need to allow young, pre-weaned calves to be able to touch one another.

Compliance issues

Speaking to the people who manufacture and supply hutches, the
problems of compliance issues are well-known. A partial solution
is to place two individual hutches together side by side, with adjacent pens linked with tie wraps, to comply with socialisation rules. When the calves are grouped, the hutches and pens need to be easily dismantled, cleansed and made ready for the next calves. At busy calving periods, the removal of bedding and cleansing is seen as an essential part of disease control. There are differences between manufacturers that allow individual feeding within the
hutch as well as in the pen and there are issues of ventilation and sunlight protection. The hutch system is well-used in the USA where, it is understood, there is no eight-week rule and individual calf management up to 15 weeks of age is being applied on some farms. It seems that justification is required for the eight-week rule. Is there some science that indicates the need for such a restriction? Clearly the inspectors are only applying the law as it stands, but if this is going against veterinary advice to the farmer to overcome disease, the need for a review seems urgent. It also seems necessary to have a scientific evaluation of the need for
calves to be able to touch one another. A review of the systems in place that would provide sight and socialisation, without the calves being within muzzle length, might conclude that the calves are kept in an uplifting low-disease environment and that this is better than being grouped in a shed with typical ventilation issues. It would be interesting to know whether there is hard information on
the impact of individual calf management hutches and the incidence of pneumonia and other diseases. With the demand for
increasing levels of recording, it may be that veterinary practices are able to comment authoritatively from their experiences. Dr Nick Bell (BOS International Ltd) is concerned about the issue of conflict between disease control best practice and existing legislation and would welcome observations. E-mail herdhealth@gmail.com.