The Dreaded Calf Scour

Calf scour is well recognised as the number one reason for mortality in newborns and young calves in the first few weeks of life. With calving season in full swing, one disease which every farmer dreads is calf diarrhoea or scour, writes Tommy Heffernan, Vet.

On most farms the risk is lower as calving commences, but the risk increases with time. Now is a good time to put measures in place to reduce the risk.

dreaded calf scourWhat Causes Calf Scour?

So calf scour occurs when viruses, parasites and/or bacteria damage the gut wall. This decreases the animal’s ability to absorb fluids and nutrients. As it progresses it can potentially lead to severe dehydration and secondary problems with septicaemias. Early treatment and intervention usually gets the best results.

The main causes of scours in Irish farms are:
1. Viral scours rotavirus coronavirus.
2. Parasites cryptosporidium/coccidiosis.
3. Bacterial E coli/salmonella.

There are other potential causes, but the ones mentioned above are by far the most common agents we isolate. The age affected can vary but generally it is recognised that E coli affects calves between one and five days old, and coccidiosis affects calves older than three weeks. The others can generally occur between five and 21 days.

Having a simple standard operating procedure (SOP) for scouring calves can be very useful.

1. Remove from the calf pen to sick pen. Isolating these cases allows for more intensive treatment and also reduces the risk of spread to healthy calves.

2. Rehydration revolutionised human medicine when it was discovered. It also is massively important to the outcome of treating calf scours. Early intervention with 2 litre feeds x 2 daily separate to milk feeds works well. Carefully chose your rehydration solution as quality does vary. If you are not confident using a stomach tube, get your vet to show you how to tube calves correctly.

3. Continue to feed milk or keep the calf on the cow. Starvation can be detrimental to treatment outcome and milk feeding allows the gut to heal quicker. Oral rehydration should be carried out at times in between milk feeds.

It is advised to call the vet when the calf has not been drinking for two or more feeds, is down/weak, has sunken eyes and has a temperature above 39.5°C or below 38°C. Your own vet is best placed to advice on antibiotic treatment for individual cases. It is worth noting that giving oral antibiotics to calves with viral scours or crypto has no benefit and is not recommended.

Preventing Further Cases

When you know what is causing the scour, you can focus on preventing further cases. The reason calf scour is an issue later in the calving season is that infection pressure builds. This is where hygiene is reduced through increased numbers of newborns and calves, but more importantly the bugs that cause scour build to high levels in the environment.

If viral scours are isolated, it is important to focus on colostrum and hygiene. Individual calf pens definitely help for the first seven to 14 days and they must be kept clean and dry. All feeding equipment should be thoroughly cleaned as to minimise spread.
My advice is equipment should be cleaned daily and disinfected at least twice weekly. This might seem like extra labour, but pales in comparison to the work and heartache scouring causes.
Healthy calves should not be stomach-tubed with a tube used to treat sick calves.

There is the option of vaccinating cows with a scour vaccine two to three weeks out from calving if viral scours such as rota/corona are isolated. This works well when colostrum management is excellent.

Crypto Control

We are now seeing more issues than ever with cryptosporidium. It now seems to be a primary agent meaning it can cause scour on its own and not just in conjunction with viral agents.

Hygiene, I have found, is the most critical area to work on when crypto is diagnosed. There are several products on the market for crypto control and again talk to your vet about which one to use.

It is worth mentioning the original source can be from the dam’s faeces, making calving area hygiene of the utmost importance.
My advice is sit down with your vet and draw up a plan to minimise your risk and maximise the calf health on your farm.
– Farmers Journal, 8th February, 2016.

Breaking the 1,000 Cow Barrier


Tom Browne Dairy PioneerIt’s a milestone for the Irish dairy industry, and the culmination of a lifetime’s work and dreams. This spring Tom Browne’s visions have come true as he calves down 1,046 cows on his Greenhills farm in east Cork. “In a way it just creeps up on you,” laughs the ever-genial Tom.

“Some 15 years ago when we first installed a 60 unit rotary parlour we were milking 300 cows. That moved to 500, then 600, and 700, and last year we milked 880. But it has always been dependent on getting more land, and we were lucky last autumn to lease another 100ac. That opened the way for us to get to the 1,000 cow mark,” he explains.

Ironically, the set-up looks much like any other 200-300 cow operation when you pull into the yard on an exposed ridge of dry land between Youghal and Tallow on the Cork-Waterford border. And before you are let near the sheds, the Browne’s innate hospitality has one ensconced in their modest kitchen, cup of tea in hand.

A multi-camera screen hangs over the kitchen table, complete with 16 different camera angles ranging from the milking parlour to the 300 cubicle cow-sheds and straw-bedded calving pens.

It’s partly to keep an eye on things, and partly for a bit of security around the place too,” volunteers Tom’s son, Simon Browne.

The 32-year-old was relatively a late-comer to the farm, having first trained and worked for three years as an accountant with Cork-based firm FDC.

“I was just one exam short of being fully qualified, but when dad started talking about selling the business, I decided that I had to give it a go. It was only when I started here fulltime that I realised how much happier I was being out of the office,” says Simon.

With his book-keeping background, you would be forgiven for thinking that Simon would spend most of his time in the office, looking after the administration of such a large operation.

But the opposite is the case, with the youngest of the Browne boys avoiding the indoors for the majority of the working week.

The operation appears to be highly efficient. Profit monitor costs are around 20c/l, and with just seven full-time staff, including Browne Snr and Jnr, it means that there are close to 150 cows per labour unit.

Tom has no doubts that the 60 unit Dairymaster rotary parlour was the right choice for herd when it was installed in 2001. Yet, it still takes 18 man-hours per day to milk the cows.

“It took about three hours to milk the 880 cows last year, and that was with three lads. One guy is cupping, another is bringing the cows in, and another is making sure that they get away ok. But it’ll be closer to 3.5hrs with the 1,000 cows,” admits Simon.

The herd is 100pc spring calving, with 74pc due to calve within six weeks. This is an average of more than 18 cows a day, but Tom says that up to 50 can calve per day when they are at full tilt.

“We will have a person watching and dealing with calving cows 24 hours a day from now on – it’s the only way to deal with the volumes,” he says.

Average EBI is €143, and the herd is averaging 6,200 litres per cow on 600kg of meal, which translates into an impressive 494kg of milk solids.

“We’re going to wait for another two or three years to see where crossbreeding will be,” says Tom. “I’ve been reluctant to go down the route, because it takes a long time to get back to where you started if you ever decide that cross-breeding isn’t for you. I also think that most of the fertility problems that existed in the Friesian breed have been bred out again.”

Simon chips in. “I’d also be wary of results comparing the average performance of crossbred cows, because they tend to be in the better managed herds, which is compared to the national average.”

The cows were all housed when I visited two weeks ago, but everything both inside and outside the sheds was neat and tidy.

I realised part of the reason why the yard layout appears so compact is that one shed is literally built into a rock wall on the side of a hill.

It is only when you get outside to the milking platform that you start to get a sense of the scale of the operation.

The 6m wide laneway stretches off to the horizon, while a 10t excavator rumbles away in one of the paddocks.

“We’re trying out covering the laneways with cheap woodchip. We did a section last year and you could actually see the cows move faster over it. With the furthest paddocks 1.8km away, lameness is one of the biggest challenges that we are facing,” explains Simon.

This is despite the fact that the Brownes already have some flexibility built into their system to accommodate their lame or sick cows.

“We’ll run three separate mobs this year, with 400 in two along with another of about 200. That’s where any cow with issues goes, and they’ll tend to walk shorter distances. The 400 limit on the other groups is purely a function of the size of the collecting yard at the parlour,” he adds.

The stocking rate on the milking platform is high at 3.8cows/ha, but the entire 1,200ac being farmed is also small relative to the 1,046 cows being milked.

Maize silage

“We have travelled up to 15 miles away to get land, and ended up putting it into maize silage just to minimise the travel to and from it,” says Simon.

Out behind the cow sheds are towering pits of silage and chopped straw.

“Yeah, we pitted about 80ac of straw this year, harvested the exact same way as the grass, with a double-chop. We feed a lot of straw here every year – up to 5kg/hd for cows that are over conditioned.

“It’s just mixed with silage and dry-cow minerals and fed out with a diet feeder.

“We also bring a little meal into the diet just before they calve to ease the transition over,” says Simon.

Even though the silage quality tested well at 71DMD and 15pc protein, the Brownes found that the cows haven’t taken to it as well as silages of similar quality in previous years.

Were they tempted to milk on last autumn with the quotas gone for the first time in a generation?

“Yes and no. We would only have had 50-100 cows milking on, so it was hardly worth it. Plus, it’s important for us to stop to give everybody a break and time to socialise,” says Tom.

One of the biggest challenges for staff is getting used to the numbers.

“There’s bad days on every farm, but a bad day here can be like a young fella’s worst nightmare,” says Tom.

“But it’s all down to the numbers. If a 100 cow herd loses two or three cows every year with downers and so on, that’s going to be 20 or 30 here.

“You’ve just got to be able to handle the fact that every mistake and misfortune is going to be amplified.”

How Tom Browne built up his herd

Many readers will be wondering how an Irish farmer that sold his quota in the 1980s is preparing to calve over 1,000 cows this spring, less than a year after quotas have ended.

“We were actually milking 200 cows when the quotas came in 1983, but I decided to get out of milking cows shortly afterwards because I felt there would be more scope for growth in the arable sector where we were already active,” explains Tom Browne.

“But when the Mulder case was taken and won in Europe, I took the opportunity to get back into cows.

“That was in the early 1990s, and we started back with 150 cows. But at the same time I was farming a big acreage of tillage and beet through rented land.

“I got two other lucky breaks under the EU’s CAP regime. The first was the compensation that was paid to farmers when the sugar beet industry was closed down. I was lucky enough to be able to plough that money into a profitable dairy system.


“The stacking of the payments also allowed me to pull back on the amount of rented land that I was forking out for, and making very little on. Instead, I was able to concentrate my efforts and money on building up the dairy enterprise here.

“Throughout all those years I bought and leased quota whenever I could. I suppose it all mounts up over time.”

Darragh McCullough, Indo Farming.