Why you should never subject your calf to stress

Calfs play at Kisii Agricultural Training Center. [Sammy Omingo, Standard]

Dear Daktari, I am a dairy farmer and I keep the local breeds but recently started keeping dairy crosses to increase milk production and income. I bought two pregnant cows which are about to deliver. I need info on taking care of calves. [Joel Mwadime, Wundanyi Taita Taveta County]

Thank you Mwadime for writing to us. Calf rearing is a delicate process because we are dealing with a delicate being going through a very important phase in its life. How we treat the small calf will affect its growth and productivity.  I am assuming that your animals will deliver without any problems. To achieve that, it helps to know the signs of birth, get the dates and put your vet on standby. After successful birth ensure the calf gets enough first milk (colostrum) as this will contribute to its immunity and hence help it make through neonatal diseases.

Calves are prone to diarrheal diseases and most of them are caused by poor handling by the farmhands and a dirty mother's udder. To prevent this, the mother’s udder and teats should be cleaned before the calf suckles or it is milked. The farmhands should also maintain cleanliness while milking or feed the calf. Wear clean clothes and boots when handling calves, do not share farm equipment between adult animals and calves, as this can spread diseases. Maintain a close watch on the calves for any clinical diseases. Engage your vet for any vaccinations. Note that milk, feeding troughs, water and milk buckets (for calves that are bucket feed), are sources of pathogens and they should be routinely washed and sanitised. If you have several calves do not share the buckets across. 

Good feeding at weaning and thereafter

While initially the calf will rely on milk alone, feed and water will soon be introduced. The feed must be of high quality, fresh and clean (avoid contamination with dung and urine) with clean water. Water should be given twice a day.  Calves can be weaned as early as three months and this should be done using high quality feeds. Weaning calves using poor feeds will result in a delay in age at first calving as a result of reduced growth rate.

Good housing

The design of the house can affect the health status of the calf. The design should allow for maximum air flow, and protect the calf from wind (draft), sun and rain. It should be designed in a way that cleaning is easy. Bedding should be made from dry materials that offer good cushioning. This can be made from saw dust, straw, shavings, sand or gravel. Good bedding will ensure the calf remains clean, absorbs moisture and hence reduces chances of diseases. Calf beddings should be checked regularly for wetness as this supports the growth of pathogens. Good ventilation lessens dust, removes odours, moisture and also makes the building to last long. Poor ventilation creates stress which can predispose to other diseases.

Do not stress calves

Stressed calves will not feed well and have compromised immune system. Common stressors include sudden change in routine this may include change in housing or feeding. Others include transportation, rough handling, disbudding, ear tagging, poorly designed houses and dirty environment. Change in feeds or feeding routine can cause diarrhoea. 

[Dr Othieno is a veterinary surgeon and the head of communications at the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) Kenya. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of FAO]

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