Indoor rules: good calf start is half the battle and you need good facilities

By Brian Reidy

I suppose it was bound to happen! We are all running out of grass.

Well, at least, we have run out grass before we ran out of good weather.

At home, I weaned most of the remaining spring calves and housed all of the autumn calvers earlier this week.

Management of a suckler herd changes a lot indoors.

Most sucklers seem to calve without assistance when outdoors.

Once indoors, however, with less exercise and a typically lower plane of nutrition, cows are often slower to calve and sometimes will require assistance.

Get set for indoor calving

Make sure that your handling facilities are appropriate for sucklers.

Suckler cows can get very aggressive around calving and can be very protective of their newborns.

Most farms now have a purpose-built calving gate which restrains the cow at calving, if necessary.

These gates are also ideal for getting a calf started suckling safely.

The Food Wise 2025 high level implementation committee overseeing food industry planning recently received the Food Wise Meat Implementation Report from an expert group chaired by Michael Dowling, left, pictured with IFA national livestock chairman Angus Woods.

Make sure that your calving jack is in full working order and that the ropes are close at hand.

A source of cold water in the calving box is also handy to help resuscitate a calf after a difficult calving.

A drop in the ear can work wonders in an emergency.

Also make sure that your calving camera is working correctly to avoid unnecessary visits to the shed, disturbing cows, particularly heifers in the process of calving.

Sucklers can get very stressed around calving if disturbed, if they are not used to human contact.

Suckler cows — depending on breed — often show little signs of calving and can go into labour quickly with no great warning.

Scour vaccination

If your herd has a history of scour indoors, it might be worth discussing a scour vaccination programme with your vet.

There is a large window of opportunity for these vaccines, they usually can be given between three and 12 weeks before the expected calving date.

Calving shed hygiene

It is a good idea, where possible, to clean out and disinfect calving boxes between calvings.

If this is not practical, try to have a deep layer of new straw between calvings.

Hygiene around calving is critical for subsequent calf health.

A spray of iodine on the navel soon after calving will also help to reduce exposure to environmental infections.

A good start for calves is half the battle.

Getting sufficient colostrum into a calf soon after calving provides much needed antibodies.

This will help to boost the calves’ natural immune response further, reducing the incidence of disease.

Where possible, get the calf up and drinking ASAP, and monitor their suckling activity in the first few hours.

Housing sucklers with young calves

After calving indoors, it is ideal if facilities allow you to leave the cow and calf in a single box for as long as possible.

This will allow first calvers in particular to bond with their new calf and get used to the them suckling.

It also allows you to monitor the cow’s intake and reduce the risk of any metabolic disorders which may occur soon after calving.

It also reduces the risk of injury associated with entering a large group soon after birth.

Calf creep areas

When the cow and calf enter the main herd, it is important that the pens are not overcrowded.

Most suckler cows are housed on slats or cubicles, and with either, it is best practice from an animal performance point of view that calves have access to a separate creep area.

A calf creep area doesn’t need to be too elaborate, but should provide the basics of a warm, dry, clean bed with access to feed and water.

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