25 August 1995

Quality colostrum and good hygiene keep illness at bay

Calf rearing success depends on proper housing, feeding and colostrum intake. Here Jessica Buss details how to safeguard the health of the young calf, which is particularly susceptible to disease

CALF scours and ill-thrift can be avoided with colostrum and good hygiene. And when adequate quantity and quality of colostrum is fed scours, enteritis and septicaemia are much less likely to occur later in the calfs life.

The advice comes from Dr Tony Andrews, senior vet lecturer at the Royal Vet College, Potters Bar, Herts. "When a calf has adequate levels of colostrum it is four times less likely to die and half as likely to be treated for disease," says Mr Andrews.

A calf needs 3.4 litres (6pt) of colostrum within its first six hours to kill off bugs and protect against disease, he says. That is equal to 20 minutes sucking but more than one feed is required.

"The colostrum must be of adequate quality. Heifers and cows which are ill have lower quality colostrum, so ideally their calves should be fed some first-day colostrum from a healthy cow in the same herd, preferably using a bottle and teat."

Dr Andrews suggests keeping colostrum in 1-litre (2pt) containers in the fridge for up to two weeks or deep frozen for up to three years. Milk substitute colo-strums or colostrum from other farms can be used but may not contain the relevant antibodies.

He says suckling the dam for two to three days allows better uptake of antibodies but strengthens the cow and calf bond. And continuing to feed the calf colostrum for a further 14 days will prevent diarrhoea. "Colostrum provides a non-stick coating to the gut surface. Bugs causing enteritis, diarrhoea and scour work by sticking to the gut, so if they cant stick they cant cause illness," he says.

Although bugs are always about, infection can be reduced through good hygiene. Calving should take place in a clean calving box, a well-strawed yard or outside. "Even with good disinfection it takes two weeks for bugs to die down. Where disinfection is not possible be generous with straw and clean out the box after every three to four calvings."

At birth the navel can offer bugs a route into the bloodstream before colostrum has had a chance to take effect. "An untreated navel can cause navel infection, abscesses under the skin or in muscles, peritonitis or blood poisoning, and septicaemia, which can localise in the joints (joint-ill) or kill the animal," says Dr Andrews.

He advises dipping the navel, rather than spraying, as soon as possible after birth, ensuring complete coverage. "The dip should contain a disinfectant and a desiccant such as alcohol." One such dip is tincture of Iodine, but he says avoid teat dip, as it is too dilute and contains the softener lanolin.

Once the calf is taken away from the cow it should go in a pen cleaned in the same way as the calving boxes. Dr Andrews prefers keeping calves in pens of ones or twos to cut disease. Where group housing is the only option there should be fewer than 10 to a pen. "Larger groups are difficult to keep without good management, for calves are often low down the priorities of the stockman, so the smaller the number of animals kept together the better," he says. "Smaller groups take more labour in working with the animals but this time is needed for observation in group-housed systems.

"The first sign a calf is ill is by how quickly it drinks its milk. The stockman must take the time to interpret what is going on and check the calves are healthy. A healthy calf will be inquisitive, bright-eyed with a shiny nose and should not smell of scour." &#42

Dr Tony Andrews… A healthy calf will be bright-eyed with a shiny nose and it should not smell of scour.