Animal Health

Probiotics are a vital piece in calf-rearing jigsaw

By Dairy News Australia

A family operation that calved down 850 cows in spring has slashed antibiotic use in its calves by up to 70 per cent.

Greg Perry, Annie Newton and Greg’s son Scott milk 1400 cows between two rotary dairies on 500 ha at Tatura in northern Victoria.

Annie oversees managing the calves, and the calf-rearing team.

Diligent, observant and committed to rearing the best calves possible, Annie has left no stone unturned in her pursuit of excellence, establishing exacting protocols in Perry Farms’ calf pens because she understands the sheer scale of their operation means calves will be exposed to challenges.

Yet, as Annie sat down to discuss their approach after tagging almost 300 calves for the season, she talked about individual animals — not just the numbers.

“Our calves are really important to us because they are our replacements, and it’s been proven time and again that the first couple of weeks of their life is so critical,” Annie said.

“That time really depicts how they are going to calve down and their production potential. So, it’s important to look after them from the word go.”

Perry Farms’ protocols include meticulous colostrum management, high-level hygiene practices, and the inclusion (for the first time this season) of the natural and potent probiotic additive BioCalf, which contains Australia’s only all-natural coccidiostat.

The family is also using BioBoost paste, a probiotic paste which is 40 times stronger than any other product.

Annie said including BioCalf and BioBoost — after reading about its use at Hooper Farms, in Gippsland — gave her the vital final piece of her own calf-rearing jigsaw puzzle.

Their inclusion has been the only significant change made this season, and Annie said to have reduced their reliance on antibiotics by 70 per cent had been a game-changer.

BioCalf is added to the milk at one gram per calf per day. Its all-natural coccidiostat is Yucca schidigera (known as yucca).

Yucca is native to Mexico and the south-west of the United States. Native Americans recognised yucca as a “tree of life”, with health-promoting activity.

Its extracts have been used for centuries, including in US cattle production for more than 30 years. Yucca contains naturally occurring saponins, which help bind protozoal pathogens such as coccidiosis and cryptosporidium. Other positive effects from including yucca include improved growth rates, feed efficiency and general health.

“We were using another product before BioCalf to help prevent crypto, E.coli and coccidiosis,” Annie said.

(Crypto, or cryptosporidium, is one of the most common causes of calf scouring/dehydration in calves under six weeks old.)

“The first thing we noticed with Biocalf was that it mixed like a dream,” she said.

“It also stayed suspended in the milk, so we knew the calves were getting it. Sometimes mixing can be a challenge with some additives.”

Annie also included BioBoost for its potency — and she isn’t the first to fall in love with its impact on newborns and sick calves.

“Every calf we kept was given a dose of the BioBoost paste on their tongue at birth. I figured it was giving them ‘something extra’ to fight against any bugs we might have.

“If any calf didn’t seem ‘right’ at any point, we’d give them a double dose of the paste as a precaution.

“It was so simple, because you just slip it onto their tongue, and it worked really well as an early preventative treatment that was non-invasive, effective and easy to do.

“Now that the calves are bigger, and they are outside in the paddocks, if something doesn’t look quite right, they get the paste.

“It has cut down our use of antibiotics — I’d say by more than 70 per cent, but in all honesty it may be even higher than that.

“It’s not only the expense when you have to use antibiotics, it’s the stress for the calves, and the worry and extra work for our staff.”

Annie said BioCalf and BioBoost had also changed the look of their quarantine area for sick calves.

“Last year we had to make a shed into a designated hospital pen. This year we have had nothing like that.

“We set up a separate pen again to be safe, but the maximum number at any one time was six calves.”

Perry Farms operates a ‘three-dot traffic light’ paint system with new calves. If they have been sprayed with a red, orange and green dot, they have received Perry Farms’ ‘gold standard’ start, which includes:

● Red dot: Colostrum (tubed with colostrum measured as Brix score of 22 per cent or better within 12 hours).

● Green dot: Umbilical cord dipped in methylated spirits and iodine solution.

● Orange dot: BioBoost paste given at birth.

New calves are grouped in no more than eight per pen. After their colostrum, they are fed four litres/day of fortified milk (split into two feeds) until day five.

They then go to once-a-day feeding with fortified milk.

The timelines for how long they will get fortified milk remains a fluid conversation.

Annie said it was important to note that their system was only as strong as its weakest link.

In her thirst for knowledge, she has settled on two high-performing sanitising products: popular European product, Stalosan F (powder) and biodegradable Germidet (detergent and sanitiser).

Everyone who visits or works the calf sheds is asked to dip their boots and sanitise their gloves at the provided hygiene stations.

“It helps stop the potential spread of germs and, once the calf feeders have been washed each morning, the teats are sprayed with the Germidet solution to kill any bugs.”

Danish product Stalosan F has a pH below four.

The non-toxic powder works because it includes high levels of copper and iron oxide, which are both well-known antimicrobials; the unique combination of minerals binds up to 100 per cent moisture where ammonia is present. It is also far less toxic to work with than lime.

“We muck-out calf pens every day,” Annie said.

“When we set them up at the start of calving, the pens are initially sprayed with the Germidet solution.

“Once it has dried we start by using Stalosan, we then add pine mulch and pine shavings for the bedding.

“When we top them up, we use Stalosan again because it dries the pens out, disinfects and reduces ammonia.

“And, we use Stalosan in the sick-calf pens every day. If the calves outside are not sick, but perhaps they have manure that is a bit loose, we’ll just sprinkle some Stalosan over the manure.

“We do that in the calf sheds too. For five minutes work per shed, I think it’s worth it. It’s all about prevention.”

Annie has been grateful for Daviesway’s Brendan Johnson, who keeps in regular touch with what’s happening in the global calf-rearing space.

“Brendan’s input has made all the difference,” she said.

“He just gives me the information, he’s not pushy and he lets me decide what I want to do.”