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Eamon O’Connell: Long-term planning the magic formula for keeping farms disease-free in spring

“Winds in the east, mist coming in. Like somethin’ is brewin’ and ’bout to begin. Can’t put my finger on what lies in store, but I feel what’s to happen all happened before.”

I had the pleasure of sitting down with my children to watch Mary Poppins recently and this verse from one of the film’s most famous songs is indicative of the general mood in our veterinary clinic at the moment.

Feelings of trepidation and anxiousness are mixed with anticipation  as we are only a few weeks away from what I predict will be one of busiest springs to date.

Cow numbers are still increasing and the calving spread is becoming tighter on a lot of farms. This will lead to a huge amount of calves on the ground in a short period of time and, with a lot of uncertainty around the market for surplus calves, a calf health storm is most definitely brewing.

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Spring is the most stressful time of the year, where both the bodies and the minds of farmers are pushed to the very limit. Of the mountain of tasks that have to be done daily, rearing calves properly is certainly the hardest.

Keeping beds clean, dry and freshly bedded is a never-ending job. Colostrum management, twice daily feeding, cleaning and disinfecting feeders and checking calves’ general health can run many farmers ragged.

As the spring progresses, cracks can start to appear. Sometimes, it is just not possible to get around to doing everything and,invariably, diseases such as pneumonia and scour start to appear.

As my namesake Paul O Connell once said: “You can only play the game that’s in front of you.” When scour or pneumonia hit in the spring, this is all a lot of farmers can do.

They are just about managing to do what needs to be done already, so when calves get sick, they try their very best to treat them and keep them alive. This is where the vet comes in.

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In the ever-developing industry that is farming, it is no longer acceptable for a vet to just arrive on farm and treat sick calves. Most farmers are already able to do that. We vets certainly have some extra tools in our belt for firefighting (IV drip being one example that springs to mind), but there has to be more to the game than just fighting the fire.

Vets nowadays will take a step back and try to see the bigger picture. Yes, the fire must be put out, but not only do we need to understand how it first started, we also need to make a plan to make sure it doesn’t ignite again.

Take an outbreak of scour for example. Most farmers know at this stage that they need to feed through the sickness — milk morning and evening along with intermittent electrolyte feeds to keep the calf hydrated.

Heat is important so red lamps or calf jackets are a huge help. Additives such as probiotics help stabilise the gut and aid in its recovery, along with sometimes anti-inflammatory medication to ease the abdominal discomfort that often accompanies scour. This is the bread and butter of managing sick calves. Now, the vet will step in.

Firstly, a sample of the scour will be taken. Most vets have calf side kits, which can tell within minutes what bacteria, virus or parasite is causing the outbreak.

Rotavirus, coronavirus, E. coli K99 and the dreaded cryptosporidium are the four main culprits. When we know the cause, it’s easy to start making both a successful treatment and preventative plan.

However, this isn’t good enough anymore. Don’t get me wrong, credit has to be given for quickly identifying the cause and coming up with a brief plan. For example, we know that in the case of rotavirus, the treatment plan will be just as mentioned above and the preventative plan will be to vaccinate the remaining cows to give calves protection from the virus through the colostrum. But we need to go further. 

So we look at colostrum management. Again, every farmer is sick of hearing about the 1,2,3 of colostrum: the 1st milk, 2 litres of which needs to be given in the first 3 hours. Simple. But what about the quality of the colostrum? It’s not much use feeding lots of colostrum if it’s not fit for purpose.

We need to be measuring the quality of every cow’s colostrum on the farm and it is a very easy thing to do.

All you need is a cheap and cheerful piece of equipment called a refractometer. Your vet will teach you how to use it and tell you the cut-off point for good vs bad quality.

We can also measure colostrum management indirectly by checking the baby calves. Blood samples taken from a few calves can be examined by your vet back at their clinic to check that the calves have received enough good quality colostrum at the correct time. If they haven’t, their immune system isn’t going to be able to even attempt to fight off any illness.

Your vet can measure the hygiene of the buckets and feeding utensils too. A quick swab can detect what bacteria are lurking in teats of feeders or in the buckets. If harmful bacteria are found, then you don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to know that these bacteria will be getting into the calves stomach and will only have a negative effect.

Hygiene starts in the calving pen where the newborn calf hits the ground. Arguably, it starts even earlier in the cubicles. A calf has to get the best start and all the things we have mentioned, from colostrum to hygiene, all need to be looked at as a potential area for improvement if an outbreak of scour occurs.

Armed with all the information we have gathered, we can now make a detailed plan on how to stop the outbreak and, more importantly, prevent it from happening next year. The plan should be broken down into short-term and long-term actions. The short-term actions should be things that can be done immediately and easily for the exhausted farmer. The plan has to be one that fits the farm in question and addresses the availability of labour and facilities.

The long-term plan will be one that can be worked on when the shed is empty, the calves are at grass and the pressure is off. These changes  might be a difficult pill to swallow and maybe a spoon full of sugar will be needed to make the medicine go down.

Discuss the plan over tea and a biscuit — everything will be a bit more palatable.

Eamon O’Connell is a vet with Summerhill Vet Clinic, Nenagh, Co Tipperary

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