A RECENT farm walk organised by the Scottish Beef Association highlighted the importance of optimising health and nutrition of cattle around calving.

Hosted by Stuart and Michael Walker, at the family's Knockenjig Farm near Sanquhar, Dumfries, the event welcomed in the region of 160 attendees, including many from Ireland, to hear about the brothers' cow management system both pre and post-calving.

Stuart and Michael gave the attendees a tour of the enterprise which has welcomed substantial expansion in the last two years as cow numbers have increased from 300 to 650, plus followers and around 80 to 100 replacement heifers, which are now housed in a state-of-the-art winter housing unit as well as a recently completed shed to house the 32 bulls and freshly calved cows.

The brothers have also implemented EID throughout the herd, and the main housing unit can now be managed by a single stockman thanks to self-locking yokes.

SAC Consulting animal nutritionist, Karen Stewart, met with the brothers, who work closely with the college, after each group left the main cattle shed and a very informative discussion on nutrition led to an intense question and answer session.

One of two sponsors hosting a workshop was Kath Aplin, a Cumbrian vet working for Boehringer Ingelheim who specialises in ruminant health. Her presentation, '#calfmatters – getting off to a good start', emphasised the importance of getting facilities correct ahead of calving to optimise calf health.

Ms Aplin used examples of common calf health solutions – colostrum, fresh air, clean bedding, vaccines and antibiotics – and emphasised the need to use these appropriately.

"We discussed the fact that people like a quick fix and tend to buy a product in order to fix problems," said Ms Aplin, Boehringer's technical adviser, who asked a farmer to put the “calf health solutions” in order of how effective they are for preventing disease, before each was discussed.

"Colostrum is the number one priority; if you don't get colostrum right you're fighting an uphill battle. Issues such as calf vigour or calving difficulties may influence colostrum intake while cow condition, health, nutrition and hygiene can all affect colostrum quality."

She went on the stress the importance of getting quality colostrum into calves and making sure they've had enough. If in doubt, she said, calves should be topped up with real colostrum, preferably from their mother but taking particular care to avoid any Johne's cross contamination if using donated colostrum; if using powdered colostrum it should be of high quality. The benefits of topping up antibody levels in colostrum by using the Boehringer product Locatim were also discussed.

"Air and bedding were the next essentials, and we discussed the basic aspects of shed design, including the stack effect and the importance of good ventilation.

"Some farmers were concerned about the cost of quality straw this winter - it may be more expensive than usual but it’s still cheap compared to the cost of disease spreading through the herd.

"Once those three factors are right, calves have a fighting chance of beating off disease challenges and the best chance of responding well to vaccinations. Vaccines are a highly effective way to prevent disease, when the right vaccine is used in the right conditions. Calf pneumonia is an all too common disease that may never be eliminated but could be greatly reduced by better use of vaccination. If good management and vaccination are used to prevent disease, the need for antibiotics is minimised. Antibiotics should be used for treatment of clinical cases of disease, not for prevention – using them responsibly will help preserve their effectiveness for the future," added Ms Aplin.

Also hosting a workshop was the technical director from Crystalyx, Cliff Lister, who discussed the various products available to improve the performance of calving cows, such as better conception rates and growth weights.

One such product is Crystalyx Cattle Booster which, through independent university research, has been shown to enhance growth rates and improve animal performance.

Trials undertake in Germany, at Aberystwyth University, and by SAC, indicate an increase in daily liveweight gain compared to a control group, as well as improved fertility.

"In a Scottish trial run by SAC, beef heifers with access to Cattle Booster gained 1.19kg per day compared with control heifers gaining 1.09kg per day, due to more efficient rumen fermentation. Feeding Crystalyx stimulates the rumen bugs making them work more efficiently," explained Mr Lister.

"In a trial at Aberystwyth University, 11-month-old Holstein cross Friesian heifers with access to Cattle Booster gained 0.81kg per day at grass compared to control heifers gaining 0.63kg per day."

Mr Lister also highlighted the trial in Germany where Holstein heifers gained an extra 0.22kg per day compared to the control group, and were synchronised before being AI'd. Pregnancy diagnosis undertaken at housing, at the end of the trial, showed 92% of the heifers fed Crystalyx at grass were pregnant, compared with 80% of the control heifers.

Furthermore, trials taken in New Zealand highlight the improved fertility as more heifers were diagnosed in calf and at earlier stages.

"A trial in New Zealand with 319 replacement dairy heifers split into four groups – two control and two fed Crystalyx – showed a 95% pregnancy rate in the control heifers and a 100% pregnancy rate in both Crystalyx groups. The Crystalyx-fed heifers were also, on average, four days further in calf, meaning they had been served earlier by the bull, suggesting an earlier and stronger oestrus when Crystalyx is fed," added Mr Lister.