Dipping temperatures and changes in feed and housing at the onset of autumn are among the host of triggers that can create stress in dairy youngstock. Here we provide some tips on pre-empting these and keeping youngstock rearing more ‘plain sailing’.

Housing is the biggest challenge, many producers don’t have purpose-built units and there’s a degree of improvisation, but this needn’t be a reason – or an excuse for a dip in performance or for disease outbreaks.

Young calves are the most vulnerable to disease and stress factors resulting from poor ventilation, temperature fluctuations and humidity will leave the calf more vulnerable. So look at the air flow and make sure vent tubes are working, and before temperatures drop further, make sure boarding is in place to stop draughts and howling gales. It’s possible to make a few modifications and reduce the risk of stress to young calves.

Housing issues are not confined to young calves either. Stocking rate and trough space can become issues when heifers come indoors after summer grazing and there’s jostling for position in a more confined area. This might not be obvious straight away, but as they grow, any problems are exaggerated.

If space is limited and heifers are stressed, intakes and therefore growth rates will be affected, especially in some of the smaller, less aggressive heifers.

Autumn is a tricky time for temperature and humidity fluctuations, especially in the UK. We might get big variations between day and night temperatures – a 20⁰C drop from day to night isn’t uncommon – and from day to day. This can challenge even the strongest of immune systems.

Monitoring temperature and humidity on a THI meter is recommended in calf accommodation; ideally hung at calf level but out of their reach.  And for those calves in hutches or igloos, producers should watch for variations depending on positioning. The last hutch in the row can be significantly hotter or cooler than those in the middle or at a more sheltered end.

Early Setback:

Too many calves start with a disadvantage. Colostrum quality, quantity and timeliness is crucial, but giving colostrum in a quiet, un-stressful environment encourages passive immunity. Cleanliness is vital too.

Avoiding colostrum contamination is required. The colostrum is clean in the udder, but it’s important that the udder is clean, the milker’s hands, collecting equipment and the tube being used to feed the calf – right through the chain.

Whatever the cause, this lack of immunity in the early days leaves the calf vulnerable to infection and disease and the setbacks are felt in the short and longer term. Calves affected by respiratory problems and pneumonia will suffer lung damage – the effects are cumulative, and the consequences are long term. Damage caused to the lungs are irreplaceable

Looking out for signals and being proactive is a better management strategy than treating disease.

Stimulating gut development and encouraging gut health in young claves will boost the immune system. The feeding programme should be complimentary and should meet the animal’s nutritional requirement at all stages. Pre-weaning nutrition – both liquid and solid feed – must be consistent as this can be a challenging period that can create additional stress for the calf.

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