Why Charolais Article 11

Post Weaning Management and Herd Health

Introduction: This is the 11th in a series of 12 articles on Simon Frost’s suckler herd at Youlgreave in the Peak District. Simon achieves top 1% performance with his upland herd of 125 Limousin x Holstein-Friesian cows put to ‘curve bender’ Charolais bulls which is the basis of the Farmers Weekly/Harper Adams Beef Focus Farm concept. The Charolais bulls have top 1-5% Terminal Indexes with focus on calving ease, growth and muscle EBV’s. The calves are sold at weaning to Alan and John Dore at Chesterfield and intensively finished.

Running a herd of small-medium sized milky beef cross dairy-bred suckler cows which are put to high index, easy calving, fast growing terminal sires is viewed by both Simon Marsh and Simon Frost as a blueprint for efficient and profitable suckled calf production.

This article reports on weaning management of the suckled calves and herd health.

Weaning management Minimising stress at weaning is considered to be a key factor in an attempt to eliminate calf mortality by both Simon Frost and Alan Dore. When calves are stressed their immune system drops and health disorders occur.

Minimising stress start with the introduction of creep feed in August so that the calves know what concentrate feed is when they reach the finishing unit. Creep is not fed ad lib and only given at 1.5kg per head per day. Last year the bull calves recorded a daily live weight gain (DLWG) of 1.63kg from birth to weaning. This excellent growth rate is therefore achieved by having calves sired by high index Charolais bulls from milky Limousin x Holstein-Friesian mothers and not ‘from a feed bag’.

The calves are weaned in October and two weeks prior they are vaccinated with Rispoval4® (Pfizer Animal Health) to minimise respiratory disorders. They have their backs clipped out 4 days before being weaned and treated with Closamectin® (Norbrook). This is not done on the day of weaning – again another measure to minimise stress.

On arrival at the Dore’s finishing unit the Charolais calves are unloaded in to a very well bedded and airy shed allowing 10 sq m per bull which is significantly higher than the recommended minimum of 3.8 sq m for weaned bull calves weighing 390kg. The bulls are housed in one group which last year contained 56 calves. This goes against the general recommendation of housing bulls in groups with a maximum of 20 per pen. Alan Dore comments that suckler-bred bulls are more placid than dairy-bred bulls. They do not ride or fight as much and can therefore be managed in a large group, but agrees with the recommendation of a maximum of 20 bulls per pen for Holsteins.

The bulls are immediately offered ad lib top quality big bale silage and only get a 0.5kg/head/day of a high quality 16% CP barley based home mix which includes oats, hipro soya, linseed flakes and minerals. When the calves arrive Simon Frost also brings some bags of creep, which is a 16% CP high NDF nut. For the first couple of days the creep nuts are sprinkled over the barley mix so that the calves associate the creep nuts with a barley mix. Alan Dore comments that this is a “tempter for the calves to get them onto barley – a bit like putting custard onto a pudding”. Alan is very conscious not to push the calves too hard for the first couple of weeks in order to ‘keep the calves keen’. It takes over 4 weeks to build them up to appetite. Intensive beef minerals are initially offered for free access feeding and 56 calves get through a 20kg bag in 3-4 days equating to an intake of 102g per day thus providing essential vitamins. Alan admits that the calves do sink for the first 2 to 4 weeks since he comments that the calves are in trauma from weaning but they do have some flesh on their backs to utilise and this mini-store phase helps grow some frame. The bulls subsequently exhibit compensatory growth within the following months and last year’s calves recorded DLWGs from weaning to slaughter of 1.59kg to slaughter at 714kg at 13.6 months old.

Feeding good quality ad lib forage and home mix fed to appetite ensures problems with laminitis and bloat are non-existent.

About 2 months before the first draw of bulls the 20 biggest are pulled out of the shed which benefits the remaining younger and smaller bulls. This is something I have observed in the Harper Adams beef unit. When we draw out the first bulls in a pen for slaughter the remaining bulls ‘kick on’ and perform well which I believe is due to not being bullied by the previously dominant and biggest bulls.

Ideally the calves should be weaned 2 weeks before housing, or the cows and calves housed together for a month and then weaned. This would avoid the stress caused by weaning, housing and changing the diet all at the same time which is very traumatic for the calf. However circumstances dictate that Simon Frost has to wean at housing but it is the care and attention to detail to husbandry alongside the top genetics that result in bull calves achieving a phenomenal 427kg carcase weight at 415 days old equating to a daily carcase gain from birth to slaughter of 0.97kg.

Cow Health Simon Frost firmly believes that total attention on the ‘Golden Triangle’ of management, genetics and nutrition will help producers achieve top 1% performance. His definition of ‘good management’ is ‘good stockmanship’ focusing on taking preventative action rather having to implement fire brigade tactics. It is vital to minimise disease incidence because the subsequent losses incurred cannot be made up by improved nutrition or genetic exploitation.

Trace elements Hopping Farm suffers from specific copper, selenium and cobalt deficiencies linked to the limestone soils containing high levels of iron, molybdenum and sulphur which antagonize the uptake of the afore mentioned trace elements. If not corrected it would lead to a reduction in the immune system, as well as fertility and growth rates. To counter these deficiencies Simon treats his cows with two Cosecure® (Telsol Ltd) boluses pre-bulling prior which provide copper, selenium and cobalt in an attempt to maximise fertility. The cows also have year round access to molassed mineral buckets with a high copper and selenium specification. The cows’ average intakes are 55g/head/day. If the cows don’t receive this level of copper supplementation the coats soon start to have a red tinge. Having an adequate selenium status has eliminated retained cleansings.

Minerals In a recent survey by the SAC of the causes of mortality in suckler herds hypomagnesaemia (staggers) and milk fever were responsible for 23% of deaths in suckler herds and were the ‘number one cow killers’. Staggers is associated with low circulating levels of Magnesium (Mg) in the blood usually caused by a low dietary input alongside a high Mg output in milk when the cow is in peak lactation. Since Mg cannot be mobilised from skeletal reserves it must be provided daily in the high risk periods which can be with a variety of methods including Mg rich compound feeds, adding Mg to the water supply, dusting the pastures, Mg boluses, and free access to either Mg based molasses licks or Mg rich minerals.

The preferred option for Simon Frost is to use the molassed mineral buckets used to supply trace elements which are offered year round which also contains 10% Mg. The buckets are placed at a ratio of 1 per 20-25 cows. I would regard this as suitable regime for a medium-risk level of staggers since it is unknown whether all cows take adequate supplementation from the buckets, but having said that the strategy works well for Simon Frost’s herd. Supplying minerals and trace elements year round with buckets and boluses costs £14.80 per cow (£10 for buckets & £4.80 for the boluses).

Calving difficulties In the same SAC survey the second major cause of mortality was calving difficulties accounting for 20% of deaths. This loss can virtually be eliminated by using terminal sires with positive Calving Ease Direct EBVs with accuracies above 50% and having the cows in lean condition at body score 2 at calving. This important aspect of suckled calf production was well documented in article number 6 in the Farmers Weekly dated 1st July 2011. Pedigree breeders must give greater priority to calving ease and I see no place for hard calving bulls in the beef industry.

Calf scour and joint ill First and second calved heifers are vaccinated against Rotavirus using Rotavec® (MSD Animal Health) 4 weeks prior to calving. With easy calvings the average time from birth for the calf to take its first vital intake of colostrum is just 30 minutes which is crucial for calf health and performance since colostrum is the ‘elixir of life’!

Cleanliness in the calving boxes is vital and they are pressure washed and disinfected every three weeks which minimises disease problems which can often occur with calves born late in the season. Once born, the calves’ navel is treated on both sides and then again at 24 hours which helps prevent joint ill.

Coccidiosis The only major threat to calf health in recent years at Hopping Farm is coccidiosis. The symptoms are a ‘mucky dark scour’ which if untreated quickly include blood. Simon Frost’s immediate action is to treat with the coccidiostat Vecoxan® (Janssen) which has proven to be very effective and quickly clears up problems. Simon believes that calves quickly recover and it doesn’t significantly affect subsequent performance provided the calf has early and successful treatment.

Internal & external parasites Simon Frost believes that the incidence of fluke is on the increase due to the recent wet summers. This has been confirmed by a number of abattoirs who are reporting a significant rise in damaged livers. The calves are treated with Closamectin® (Norbrook) in August which is a broad spectrum persistent anti-parasiticide combination product based on ivermectin and closantel which is effective against fluke but also gutworms, lungworms, eyeworms, mites and lice. They are also treated again with Closamectin® at weaning as well as having their backs clipped out.

In theory mature cattle should have immunity to gut and lungworms provided they have received a gut and lungworm challenge either through natural infection or vaccination, but if a cow is seen to be losing significant body condition then she is treated with Closamectin®. All of the cows are treated with Closamectin® at housing specifically to target liver fluke and the external parasites.

BVD, IBR, Leptospirosis and Johnes Disease

The prevention of the above diseases is an area which Simon would confess needs some attention. He has yet to experience problems with them and intends to take preventative action.

The replacement Limousin x Holstein-Friesian heifers for the herd are bought from one source from a high health status dairy farm but this is no guarantee that they are free from disease. Running a totally closed herd minimises disease transmission and is the reason why many producers now breed their own replacement. But herds are unlikely to be totally closed since most farms have to buy in stock bulls.

Screening bought in replacements for BVD and ensuring stock bulls are of a high standard of health is considered a good starting point along with joining a Health Scheme. The move by breed societies to ensure that all bulls are BVD virus free prior to sale and vaccinated is commended.

Ian Pritchard is the Health Scheme Manager for the SAC Premium Cattle Health Scheme (PCHS) and comments that BVD is probably the most common viral disease of cattle in Europe and several countries have instigated eradication schemes. Scotland must be applauded since it has recently adopted an eradication programme.

The effect of BVD can be felt at all stages of the production cycle i.e. from bulling all the way through to calving and then the rearing stages of the calf. It is spread by persistently infected animals (Pi’s). These Pi’s are created in the first few months of pregnancy when a pregnant animal encounters a Pi animal. Infertility, extended calving periods, abortions, dead calves, malformed calves, weak calves are all signs of BVD infection and because the immune system is suppressed calf scours and pneumonia are also common. Often the Pi animal die with mucosal disease in which the digestive tract is severely ulcerated – an animal welfare issue. Often these deaths will be in the finishing units which cannot afford losses that will cost over £1,000.

Ian Pritchard comments that the aim is to test and remove Pi animals. This will result in the sale of animals which are fit for purpose. The ramifications of a disease outbreak is a herd can last for several years and the cumulative financial effect would be in the order of £46,000 for 100 cow herd over 10 years.

Testing for BVD involves blood sampling 5 calves (over 9 months old) per management group. Two clear tests at a one year interval will confer accredited status to the herd. For accredited status appropriate bio-security measures are also necessary e.g. a 3m boundary between your cattle and any neighbouring cattle. If you cannot create 3m boundary fencing you can get vaccinated monitored free status, in which you still have to sample the 5 calves per management group but you also need to vaccinate the breeding animals (and the bull).

Simon Frost intends to start a vaccination programme and will join the PCHS and screen a sample of his weaned calves for evidence of circulating antibodies and will also screen his cows for Johne’s.

Neospora Unfortunately one of Simon’s cows has recently aborted and Neospora is suspected. The farm being located in the scenic Derbyshire dales is littered with public footpaths with the cow suspected of picking up infection from grass contaminated by faeces from an infected dog. The cow would now be sub-clinically infected and has been culled to prevent spreading the disease. Abortions due to Neospora typically occur at 5-6 months pregnancy so the only action Simon can now take for next year is to graze his herd in the autumn on pastures with no footpaths.


• Avoid weaning calves at housing and minimise stress

• Ensure calves have been creep fed and build levels up gradually post weaning. Offer top quality forage.

• Select bulls with positive Calving Ease Direct EBVs with high accuracy

• Disease prevention is far better than cure

• Adequate mineral and trace element supplementation needn’t be costly

• Join a Cattle Health Scheme