VET’S DIARY: The challenge of getting through the first weeks

With the spring fast approaching, now is the time to get prepared. New-born losses are devastating and can quickly spiral out of control, writes Joe Henry.

Getting the calf or lamb through the first few weeks of life is a real challenge and is a battle between getting sufficient immunity from colostrum and vaccinations to withstand the threat of disease. We need to focus on the environmental factors we can control in order to improve welfare, reduce production losses and reduce neonatal mortality.

Essentially we are fighting two battles:

1 Prevent disease.

Colostrum is the most important thing to get right as it sets the new-born up for the rest of its life. The ready reckoner is: Ten per cent of the calf or lamb’s bodyweight in the first 24 hours divided over two/three feeds has been the recommended amount.

When supplementing, ensure colostrum is clean. Dung and bacterial contamination reduces its uptake in the gut.

The best colostrum is produced by the calf’s or lamb’s mother as it will have antibodies to the farm’s specific diseases. Always feed the proper colostrum first then if there is insufficient quantity or quality use an artificial supplement second.

If quality is a problem, for instance, heifers produce less antibodies than cows, specific antibodies to rotavirus can be supplemented with a paste.

Navel dipping ASAP, ensuring full coverage of the navel from tip to abdomen for at least 10 seconds using an iodine tincture, will promote drying and hasten the healing process. In high-challenge situations, this should be repeated after six hours. Wear gloves to reduce the chance of getting the iodine on your hands.

Good hygiene is imperative to minimise the build-up of pathogens in the environment, dry and clean pens, regular disinfecting, keeping groups small, clean buckets and water supply. Be careful lambing ewes, calving cows with dirty hands. Wear gloves.

Minimising stress where possible by avoiding mixing groups of calves/lambs, providing adequate shelter and social interaction as stress reduces immunity.

Preparing the cow/ewe by ensuring adequate nutrition throughout gestation. Ewes will benefit from a fluke and worm dose this month as long as this is part of the parasite-control plan.

By feeding good-quality bypass protein in the last three weeks, colostrum quantity can be increased. For instance, making the difference for a triplet-bearing ewe from producing enough for only two lambs to producing enough for three. Some feed blocks have been designed specifically for this job. Blood testing a few ewes three weeks pre-lambing to make sure they are getting enough nutrition is important particularly for silage feeders as it is such a variable feed stuff.

Vaccinating the cows for rota and corona virus and the ewes for clostridial diseases and pasteurella will boost the antibody levels in the colostrum. Biosecurity is crucial to keep disease out. Buying in calves, obtaining colostrum from sources of unknown disease status, are all considered very high-risk activities and avoided.

2 Prevent deaths from disease.

Getting a definitive diagnosis will allow more targeted treatments and control measures. Building up a picture of the disease profile on your farm through surveillance samples of disease cases to the lab and post-mortem examinations of dead stock over time will build up an invaluable knowledge base.

Proper disease profiling on your farm allows us to more confidently prescribe and justify medicine usage as per the health planning strategies you have in place.

With that said, the main reasons calves and lambs die are:

Dehydration: Rehydrate and maintain adequate hydration status. Oral rehydration therapies are beneficial, but intravenous fluids may be required if the calf is very flat or lost its suck reflex.

Starvation: Withdrawal of milk has historically been advocated, but may in fact hinder recovery, milk provides the calf or lamb with energy and is needed for gut repair, and it also helps alongside the fluids to correct the electrolyte imbalance. It is advised to feed alternate feeds of rehydration fluids and milk as mixing may affect the milk clot formation.

Hypothermia: Keeping the calf/lamb warm by supplying warm-up boxes or heat lamps, adequate shelter etc.

Septicaemia: Appropriate use of antimicrobials and anti-inflammatories.

Successful calf and lamb rearing is a time-consuming job demanding considerable skill and if done well will maximise the potential from the herd/flock.