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With the spring fast approaching now is the time to get prepared. New born losses are devastating and can quickly spiral out of control.

Getting the calf or lamb through the first few weeks of life is a real challenge and is a battle between getting sufficient immunity from colostrum and vaccinations to withstand the threat of disease.  We need to focus on the environmental factors we can control in order to improve welfare, reduce production losses and reduce neonatal mortality.  Essentially we are fighting two battles:

Prevent Disease                    

Colostrum: is the most important thing to get right as it sets the new born up for the rest of its life. 10% of the calf or lambs bodyweight in the first 24hrs divided over 2-3 feeds has been the recommended amount. Recently, in the dairy situation the ready reckoner is:

  1. Feed first colostrum.
  2. Give colostrum within two hours.
  3. Give at least three litres.

Ensure colostrum is clean. Dung and bacterial contamination reduces its uptake in the gut. Poor quality colostrum can be supplemented with products containing concentrated antibodies against E. coli, rota and corona virus normally found in colostrum. There is a licensed product on the market.

Navel Dipping: ASAP ensuring full coverage of the navel from tip to abdomen for at least 10 seconds using an iodine tincture will promote drying and hasten the healing process. Seriously consider the use of navel clamps to further reduce risk.

Good Hygiene: is imperative to minimise the buildup of pathogens in the environment, dry and clean pens, regular disinfecting, keeping groups small, clean buckets and water supply. Be careful lambing ewes, calving cows with dirty hands! Wear gloves!

Minimising Stress: where possible by avoiding mixing groups of calves/lambs, providing adequate shelter and social interaction as stress reduces immunity.


Preparing the Cow/Ewe: by ensuring adequate nutrition throughout gestation. Ewes will benefit from a fluke and worm dose this month as long as this is part of the parasite control plan. Vaccinating the cows for rota and corona virus and the ewes for clostridial diseases and pasteurella will boost the antibody levels in the colostrum.

Biosecurity: is crucial to keep disease out. Buying in calves, obtaining colostrum from sources of unknown disease status, are all considered VERY high risk activities and avoided.

Prevent Deaths from Disease

By early recognition and prompt treatment. Getting a definitive diagnosis will allow more targeted treatments and control measures. Building up a picture of the disease profile on your farm through surveillance samples of disease cases to the lab and post mortem examinations of dead stock over time will build up an invaluable knowledge base through time. Proper disease profiling on your farm allows us to more confidently prescribe and justify medicine usage as per the health planning strategies you have in place with your Farm Assurance auditors.

With that said, the main reasons calves and lambs die are:

Dehydration: Rehydrate and maintain adequate hydration status. Oral rehydration therapies are beneficial but intravenous fluids may be required if the calf is very flat or lost its suck reflex. There are many rehydration products available over the counter. Those with a higher bicarbonate level are good for counteracting acidosis. Feel free to discuss in further detail with one of us.

Starvation: Withdrawal of milk has historically been advocated but may in fact hinder recovery, milk provides the calf or lamb with energy and is needed for gut repair, and it also helps alongside the fluids to correct the electrolyte imbalance. It is advised to feed alternate feeds of rehydration fluids and milk as mixing may affect the milk clot formation.

Hypothermia: Keeping the calf/lamb warm by supplying warm up boxes or heat lamps, adequate shelter etc..         

Septicaemia: Appropriate use of antimicrobials and anti-inflammatories.

Successful calf and lamb rearing is a time consuming job demanding considerable skill and if done well will maximise the potential from the herd/flock.

Donald S McGregor & Partners Ltd is a company registered in Scotland SC495194 | Registered Address: Veterinary Surgery, Janet Street, Thurso, KW14 7EG

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