Combating common calf diseases

Pneumonia and scour are among the most common calf diseases.

FFG-Health-Disease from bacteria

This week’s blog investigates their causes and how to prevent these common calf diseases.


Pneumonia is the biggest killer of calves from the dairy herd, the highest risk period being during the first 12 weeks of life. Lung damage in affected calves will also reduce productivity through reduced growth rates and treatment costs – medicines, labour, vet costs. Even after the animals have apparently recovered losses can occur in dairy heifers through reduced performance in first lactation and in beef calves, long term impact on weight gain and carcass grading.



Pneumonia is caused by a mixture of viruses and bacteria. In most cases there are management factors that make the calf more vulnerable to disease.
• Poor ventilation – the bacteria and viruses which cause pneumonia survive better in moist, stale air
• Wind speed – young calves exposed to moderate draughts will use too much energy to keep warm and are more prone to disease
• Cold stress – young calves will get cold in standard UK winter temperatures
• Underfeeding – especially in cold weather. Calves will cope with low temperatures if extra nutrition are provided
• Weaning management – calves need to be gradually weaned so that nutrition intake from hard feed is sufficient prior to stopping milk feeding
• Mixing age groups – allows disease to spread from older to younger calves


1. Pneumonia control should be discussed with your vet
2. Reduce the risks by:
• Improving air quality in cattle sheds
• Preventing cold stress in young calves
• Ensuring sufficient calorie intake in cold weather, step up milk replacer rate

Download our Farmers Guide to Calf Pneumonia


Scour is the most common disease of dairy bred calves; it is caused by a combination of viruses, bacteria and parasites that can spread from calf to calf, for example rotavirus, E. coli, coccidia and cryptosporidia. An effective scour prevention program can be simplified into two areas – maximising calf immune function and minimising their exposure to disease.


• A dirty calving environment can expose new born calves to scour causing pathogens
• Low colostrum intake
• Underfeeding increases susceptibility to disease
• An unhygienic environment due to overcrowding, mixing of age groups, using pens for young calves without regular cleaning and disinfection and spreading infection from older to younger calves on the calf rearer’s clothing


• Discussing the cause with your vet – is it infection or nutritional? and then preventative strategies, for example vaccination
• Making sure your calves are receiving enough quality colostrum a minimum of 10% of birthweight ideally within the first two hours, tested with a colostrometer or refractometer.
• Keeping the calving area clean and hygienic
• Cleaning up the udder if the calf is to suckle its dam
• Maintaining a clean environment for young calves – clean and disinfect pens between batches and prevent contact between animals of different ages
• Making sure each calf receives adequate nutrition to promote immune status

Download our Farmers Guide to Calf Scour

Improve performance with farm benchmarking

Family farms make up around 80% of Britain’s agricultural landscape, however a lack of planning for the future may be putting these important businesses at risk. To demonstrate our support and commitment to family farms across the UK, Volac is proud to co-sponsor Farmers Guardian’s ‘Year of the Family Farm’ initiative. In the latest part of the series we take a look at farm benchmarking, a hugely powerful tool for the family farm.


Year of the family farm series

Year of the Family Farm has been running throughout 2017 and as part of the initiative a Year of the Family Farm series has been launched which aims to address the issues facing family farms and identify opportunities which will help them become fit for the future.

The latest part of this series focuses on farm benchmarking which can be a hugely powerful tool in cutting costs and improving performance. However in reality, the number of farms undertaking benchmarking is likely to be nowhere near as high as it should be. So how do you carry out effective farm benchmarking and who do you compare your performance with?

Why is benchmarking so important for family farms?

Farm benchmarking is focused on a series of marginal gains to improve performance, rather than wholesale change and can be particularly beneficial to family farms who are more likely to prefer to cut costs than to invest capital to improve their operation. While it can show simple savings to be implemented immediately, the information can influence a long-term strategy, leading to a gradual evolution in the farm’s structure and operation.

Anything which can be measured can be scrutinised, from yields, labour and fertiliser costs to feed conversion, age at first calving and daily liveweight gains.  There is nothing new about the process, but technology has now made it easier to capture and compare data quickly and easily.

Pressure on farm incomes and an acceptance that support payments are likely to reduce raises the importance of farms sense-checking their performance against other farms. Strutt and Parker partner Rob Wilkinson says more farms need to do it.

 I suspect there is an element of benchmarking which goes on in most farm businesses, but a lot of it will be off the top of the head. “We have tried to encourage it for years and interest is born out of farming without Basic Payments. Farmers need to look at how they are going to put money back into their bottom line. “But the amount of people physically sitting down and filling out data is probably very few.

How do you start farm benchmarking?

To get started with farm benchmarking, follow these 5 steps:

  1. To begin with, start with the set of accounts
  2. Look at Farm Business Survey’s website and enter the data
  3. Take advice from a further source, such as a consultant or analyst
  4. Act practically on it by using an independent source who can analyse it and suggest the next steps
  5. Join and participate in a discussion group – national or regional

Farm benchmarking in action

The more people you can measure yourself against the better, says Wiltshire dairy farmer James Wright.

Benchmarking on Wiltshire dairy farmer James Wright’s family farm begins as soon as the calves are born. Mr Wright farms a herd of 370 pedigree Holstein cows in the North Wessex Downs and starts by measuring a newborn calf around the middle with a weighband.

He says: “Every calf is born at different weights and we are aiming to get it to double its birth weight by the time it is weaned.” Mr Wright also utilises technology, such as a Volac automatic feeder for his calves, which he says allows different staff members to manage calves, as the machine keeps track of what each individual calf requires.

The farm then collects data on the cow’s fertility, health and yields, which Mr Wright measures against other farms and his own previous performances. He says keeping track of a cow’s fertility is paramount. “If she is only bulling for one hour in the middle of the night, we would probably miss the heat, so cows wear pedometers. “These measure the cow’s movement, as when a cow is in heat she will move around more.

It means we have eyes and ears on the cows 24/7, with the aim to get them back in calf quicker. “We are aiming for an 80 per cent plus survival rate from birth to second calving.” Mr Wright benchmarks across three different groups: nationally through his Sainsbury’s Muller contract; locally through his vets, Drove vets; and against a group made up of a ‘very diverse group of farms’, including low input and high input systems.

He says: “We can look at different aspects and we can see which way would suit the farm.” Mr Wright says due to benchmarking carried out on-farm, he is always adjusting the way it works, which has helped improve the farm’s performance.

“The more people we can benchmark against the better.” He denies benchmarking is simply a ‘box-ticking exercise’ and encourages those who might be cautious about sharing data to do it. He says there is a bonus to be made from benchmarking and reaching targets set by buyers.

There is a bonus to be made. It is a motivator for staff and it will lead to being more profitable. “In terms of milk contracts, it is about making sure you get into their top band.

Mr Wright encourages farmers who are cautious about sharing data to look into joining benchmarking groups, as results are confidential between those who present at meetings.

Find out more about farm benchmarking here or to catch up on the full Year of the Family Farm series visit FG Insight.

Newcastle and RDSVS student win Farm Health Management Awards 2017

We are pleased to announce that Elizabeth Johnson, a BSc Animal Science student from Newcastle University and Ellen Smith, studying at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies (RDSVS), Edinburgh have been crowned as the winners of this year’s RABDF Farm Health Management Awards.


Volac is extremely proud to sponsor this award which brings a focus to the importance of taking a holistic approach to best practice in livestock management. Each of the winners was presented with a £500 cash prize from us at Gold Cup Open Day in Dorset on Wednesday 28th June.


Alongside the two winners, certificates were also presented to two short listed finalists: Louise Swanston studying BSC Animal Science at Aberystwyth University and Olivia Dower-Tylee, a Veterinary Medicine and Surgery student at RDSVS, Edinburgh.

The annual competition, now in its tenth year, is open to agricultural and veterinary students from any course year including postgraduate students. Applicants are required to write a 1,500 word essay on proactive farm health management and the benefits it brings to animal health and welfare and farm profitability.

The essays were judged by a panel featuring RABDF Council member and Gelli Aur College farm manager, John Owen; veterinary surgeon Oli Hodgkinson, and John Summer, dairy consultant and award chairman.

Students had to demonstrate an understanding of disease costs and its financial impact on business performance together with the impact of good nutrition, consider the environmental effects of disease and its likely impact on meat and milk quality, comment on the importance of collaboration between farm staff, vets and other advisors in formulating health management plans and consider the differences among the various livestock sectors and how one can learn from another.

With an extremely high standard of entries, we would like to offer our congratulations to this year’s winners and our continued support for this important award.

“We are pleased to support agricultural and veterinary students in this award which brings a focus to the importance of taking a holistic approach to best practice in livestock management. We believe that their heightened awareness towards a proactive approach to farm health management covering all aspects, from housing and nutrition to financial impact, will be of huge benefit in their future careers.” said John Reynolds.

More information about the award is available here.

Hygiene: Combating common calf diseases

We could all learn a lot from the pig and poultry sectors where routine cleaning and disinfection is crucial. Bacteria and viruses are present in large numbers on all farms, and the diseases they and other germs cause are common and costly.

FFG-Environment-Hygiene-Clean pens

This week’s blog looks at pens, their design together with cleaning and disinfection. We’ll also investigate coccidiosis, one of the three most common calf diseases. Next week pneumonia and scour will come under the microscope.

Pens and Buildings

• Try to design calf pens so that, as a minimum, they can be emptied and cleaned prior to the new arrivals.
• Germs such as bacteria and viruses will accumulate in calf pens.
• Very few units have the facilities to allow all in, all out systems; they’re the ideal.

Pen design

1. Choose materials for calf pens which are easily cleaned and disinfected, for example metal or plastic.
2. The flooring surface should have no cracks or pits that are hard to clean.
3. Make sure you will be able to both empty and clean the drinkers and feeders between batches.

Cleaning and disinfection

FFG-Environment-Hygiene-How should I clean my pens

1. Remove all organic matter prior to cleaning and disinfection; after cleaning out the straw bedding, use a pressure washer or steam cleaner to remove the remainder.

Don’t forget, using a pressure washer in an occupied building can increase the disease risk for remaining calves. Try to remove the pen fixtures for cleaning in a separate airspace to the other calves.

2. Use a recommended disinfectant at the correct concentration on all surfaces that calves can touch. Where surfaces are cracked or damaged or porous and difficult to clean, apply a greater concentration of disinfectant to these areas.

3. Allow the pens to dry out prior to new arrivals.

Download our Farmers Guide to Housing for Young Calves

Coccidiosis: a very common problem with significant losses. Prevention is essential as treatment is too late.

Coccidiosis occurs anywhere from 12 to 21 days after ingestion of the Coccidia parasite. It causes significant gut damage, leading to scouring sometimes with blood, the calf will be seen straining and weight loss can be significant. Infected cattle go on to suffer impaired lifetime performance – reduced weight gain, treatment costs and longer time to either finishing or first calving. Severe outbreaks can result in death or chronic poor-doers which have an increased likelihood of suffering from pneumonia.


Coccidia is a common parasite present on most units. The disease occurs when young calves are exposed to high numbers.

Infection is passed from animal to animal through contact with infected faeces due to:

• Poor disinfection of pens between batches of calves
• Pen overcrowding
• Insufficient or poor quality bedding
• Grouping calves of different ages in the same pen
• Using pens on a continuous basis
• Allowing animals to contaminate feed or water with faeces, for example forage fed on the floor or concentrates being fed from low level troughs


1. If you think Coccidiosis is affecting your cattle – discuss control with your vet. Note, once you have identified an incident, damage to the gut has been done.
2. Reduce the risk of young calves coming into contact with infected faeces by
• Introducing all in, all out calf pens with good hygiene in between batches
• Preventing faecal contamination of forage and concentrate
• Isolating animals with severe clinical signs otherwise they will contaminate the environment