What you need in the ideal pen

NZ Lifestyle Block - - Feature -

RE­SEARCH over many years has shown the ideal pen is twice as long as it is wide, with solid bar­ri­ers be­tween each pen, with at least 1.5m² per calf. The goal is to keep calves warm, dry, and in good air which is why it’s best for a pen to be more rec­tan­gu­lar than square if pos­si­ble.

“It’s to do with air flow, and it’s to do with how calves be­have,” says long-time farm vet Rose­mary Milne. “If your pen is longer than it is wide, you can put your feed and wa­ter at one end. This means that the calves have a ‘wet’ area at the front, and a ‘dry’ sleep­ing area at the back which cre­ates a healthy, comfortable en­vi­ron­ment. Calf pens tend to come in all shapes, but the gen­eral prin­ci­ples of sep­a­rate wet and dry ar­eas are im­por­tant to remember."

An­other key part of a pen is a solid bar­rier be­tween each pen, es­sen­tial to pre­vent the spread of disease. For many peo­ple that can be metal sheets, rub­ber or plas­tic. Cor­flute is a cheap, light­weight bar­rier that is easy to at­tach to ex­ist­ing gates or fences be­tween pens.

Calf rear­ing fa­cil­i­ties don’t need to be brand new – old sheds can be repurposed if you keep the ba­sics in mind says Wendy.

“As long as those calves are out of the draught, they’ve got some­where they can get away from pre­vail­ing wind and rain and you’ve got good air flow as well. You’ve got to find a balance of the calf not be­ing in a draught but with good-enough air ex­change to take away the gases.

“If a shed is not airy enough you get a build-up of am­mo­nia. If you go into a shed and you can feel am­mo­nia sting­ing your eyes and in the back of your throat, your calves are cer­tainly be­ing af­fected by it – you should get down to calf level to see what they’re ex­pe­ri­enc­ing.”

The other side of the ven­ti­la­tion equa­tion is draughts.

“Calves are ok in the cold, but if they’re sit­ting in a draught or sit­ting in wet bed­ding, they’re go­ing to get colder and they’re go­ing to use their en­ergy for keep­ing warm rather than grow­ing. For young calves, once they get be­low about 15°C, they strug­gle to reg­u­late their body tem­per­a­ture.”

The best bed­ding is one that is free-drain­ing, dry, cheap and eas­ily avail­able. In the South Is­land that’s usu­ally straw says Wendy, in the North Is­land it tends to be wood chips.

“But it doesn’t re­ally mat­ter what you use, as long as it’s free-drain­ing and the calves have got a dry bed; again while you’re kneel­ing on the floor check­ing for draughts, feel if your knees are get­ting wet. It needs to be a thick-enough layer, at least 15cm deep in terms of thick­ness, then free drain­ing, drain­ing down and then away from the calf shed.”

Keep calves in groups ac­cord­ing to age

Calves start life with no im­mu­nity other than what they get from ‘true’ colostrum (the very first milk their mother pro­duces in the hours after their birth), and it takes sev­eral weeks for their bod­ies to start de­vel­op­ing the an­ti­bod­ies that will pro­tect them from disease. Even small dif­fer­ences in age mat­ter: a week-old calf has a lower im­mu­nity than a two week old calf, so it’s im­por­tant to keep calves in groups of the same age (and there­fore sim­i­lar im­mu­nity lev­els) and the group num­ber no more than 20.

“If any calves have picked up any or­gan­ism that causes scours, they’ll be ex­cret­ing them out in their poo, and that will then build up in the en­vi­ron­ment,” says Rose­mary. “We don’t want calves in the same group to be more than a week apart in age: their im­mune sys­tems are at dif­fer­ent lev­els and they have dif­fer­ent sus­cep­ti­bil­i­ties to disease.”

what to do if your calves are scour­ing

There are not a lot of spe­cific treat­ments for the com­mon causes of scours. For ex­am­ple, an­tio­bi­otics are only ef­fec­tive against bac­te­rial in­fec­tions, whereas the most com­mon causes of calf scours are vi­ral says Rose­mary. There are a few op­tions if your calves get cryp­tosporid­io­sis (known as ‘crypto’,

pro­nounced ‘crip-toe’).

“When calves get di­ar­rhoea in the first month of life there’s 4-5 com­mon causes,” says Rose­mary. “You can’t tell the dif­fer­ence – they all look the same ex­ter­nally – so you have to do tests to find which pathogen is in­volved. It’s im­por­tant to know what it is you’re try­ing to deal with; in a lot of cases, there’s of­ten more than one pathogen in­volved. If you know what is caus­ing the disease in your calves, there may be a spe­cific treat­ment.

"For ex­am­ple, for cryp­tosporid­io­sis, there is a spe­cific treat­ment and pre­ven­ta­tive prod­uct avail­able called Halocur . If you’ve got a vi­ral prob­lem,

® then you may need to look at other fac­tors in terms of try­ing to pre­vent it.

"Know­ing what's caus­ing disease on your farm can in­flu­ence what kind of dis­in­fec­tants you want to look at, how you man­age your an­i­mals, how you man­age your calf pens from one year to the next, and if vac­ci­na­tion may be an op­tion in pre­vent­ing disease in sub­se­quent years.” Re­search shows women make bet­ter calf rear­ers than men, pos­si­bly be­cause they are more ob­ser­vant of small changes. That kind of ob­ser­va­tion is key says Rose­mary.

“The sooner you can de­tect some­thing is go­ing wrong, the more quickly you can act, the more likely you are to get a pos­i­tive re­sult. Some diseases strike re­ally quickly and a dead calf may be your first sign of any prob­lems.

"How­ever, some start more slowly and if you can spot a calf look­ing a bit sad, slightly droopy ears, a bit slow coming up to the feeder, doesn’t drink a full feed, all these are tell-tale signs there’s some­thing go­ing on. If you can ad­dress that calf then, you have a much bet­ter chance of it re­turned to full health than if you left the calf un­til the next morn­ing when it’s ly­ing at the back and not want­ing to get up.” One of the big­gest is­sues for vets is peo­ple not act­ing quickly enough. The more quickly you re­spond, the more op­tions for treat­ment your vet will have, and you will pre­vent other an­i­mals get­ting sick, sav­ing you money in terms of vet bills, your time and ef­fort, and the loss of an an­i­mal.

“A lot of peo­ple are wor­ried about money,” says Rose­mary. “But even a phone call can be use­ful; have a chat to your vet about it, get some ad­vice, that can stop a sit­u­a­tion get­ting a lot, lot worse.

"Scours is a chal­leng­ing disease and if a lot of calves get re­ally, re­ally sick, it is un­likely that you can save all of them, and that’s a re­ally tough time emo­tion­ally and fi­nan­cially… it takes a big toll.”

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