Favourable developments in calf mortality


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Favourable developments in calf mortality


Attention paid to improving care and rearing has resulted in declining calf mortality figures in recent years. Tools developed on the basis of the monitoring can support further optimisation.

Over the past years, a number of measures have been taken to optimise calf rearing and reduce calf mortality. As part of the data analysis, an in-depth study by GD analysed the indicators for calf mortality, to gain additional insight into any underlying factors. All indicators for calf mortality declined between 2018 and 1 July 2019, at dairy and veal farms alike. During that period, a higher number of farms had no deaths, or a low percentage of deaths, while a smaller number of farms suffered a high percentage of deaths. The indicators have since stabilised at the lower level or declined even further, as shown by research in the period from the third quarter of 2019 through the third quarter of 2020.

Mortality decreases following implementation of various tools

The research showed that a number of factors influence calf mortality. Firstly, calves born to heifers have a greater risk of dying than those from cows which have calved more often. Multiple birth calves are also more vulnerable. Finally, but to a limited extent, the gender of the calf plays a role. There was a clear relationship between the decline in calf mortality and the period in which KalfOK or the calf mortality indicator and the KalfVolg (calf monitoring) system (KVS) were implemented at the farms in question. We cannot determine the extent to which the decline can be entirely attributed to implementation of these tools.

Improving care

The use of antibiotics to treat diarrhoea or respiratory problems and for the (preventative) treatment of cryptosporidiosis, was associated with higher calf mortality at dairy farms. Calf mortality was found to be lower when vaccinated against diarrhoea, respiratory problems or lung worm, or when treated for coccidiosis. Vaccination is often a component of a total strategy to improve the management of calf rearing. A significantly higher rate of calf mortality was also related to problems during the start-up phase of lactation in the cows. Ambient factors, such as extreme outdoor temperatures, are important points for attention.

Attention and insight is effective

In this research, the decline in calf mortality seems to correspond to all attention paid to improving the care for calves. The identified risk factors can be used as starting points for further improvement of calf health at a farm. By participating in KalfOK or the calf mortality indicator, farmers and their veterinarians gain insight into the data. The tools can therefore be a useful aid in optimising young cattle rearing. 

Inge Santman-Berends, veterinary epidemiologist at GD

“Data analysis has proven that this approach works”

“At the R&D department, we apply and analyse data to monitor animal health. As part of that process, we have conducted an in-depth study into calf mortality. A few years back, we became aware that calf mortality was increasing, and we were receiving signals from the sector. Numerous tools were therefore deployed from 2018 on, along with extra attention for the rearing process. Mortality has since declined and we can now make an inventory of the degree to which the attention and tools have helped. Once we are aware of what was effective, we can apply those interventions to achieve even further reduction.

Problems during the start-up of lactation in the cows were shown to be associated with higher mortality of the calves. Better dry period management and optimisation of the second half of lactation may help calves become stronger right from birth. Another possibility is that when the cows themselves are less healthy, problems arise among the calves. It has also become apparent that calves born to heifers have a higher risk of mortality. During the winter in particular, there is a visible difference versus cows which have calved more often. It is therefore important to keep a close eye on heifers around the calving period.

A tailor-made approach is often necessary in order to have effective insight into all the risk factors which play a role in calf mortality. Farmers can then determine what works well and what is less effective for them, together with their own veterinarian. The KalfOK system in particular can provide farmers with additional insight on the farm situation, also versus colleague farms. Farmers can then map out their areas for improvement, together with the veterinarian. Our study has clearly shown that all initiatives really work. Young livestock is always under great scrutiny from society, and it is therefore laudable that the sector itself initiated this process and introduced the tool. In 2013, not all farmers were aware of their own situation regarding calf mortality, versus the national average. They now have that insight, which is important because once you know that improvements are possible, action can be taken.

Calf mortality has declined considerably. While our study was implemented at the end of 2019, further continuous monitoring has shown that mortality figures have continued to decline after that. Next year, we aim to revalidate and improve KalfOK, and may add indicators. We shall also be publishing the results of the data analysis in a scientific journal. Hopefully this will inspire further research into improvements in young livestock rearing worldwide.”

Eline Vedder-Monaster, dairy farmer and member of the board of the Dairy Department of LTO (Netherlands Agricultural and Horticultural Association)

“Research reflects the efforts made by dairy farmers to provide good calf care”

“As we always say: ‘healthy calves are the basis for a healthy farm’. Moreover, good calf care is essential for social acceptance. These are two important reasons why the care for young animals is so crucial to LTO.

Research has shown that awareness of the importance of good care for calves has had a great deal of effect over recent years. There have been many improvements in their care, farmers have gained knowledge, and the use of protocols has proven extremely useful. It is thereby extremely important to be able to compare a dairy farmer’s performance versus their colleagues. That provides an incentive for them to make their own improvements. There is intrinsic motivation among the farmers to get things right, and the calves are benefiting from that. The research also shows that it is even more important for developing farms to have continued focus on their young animals. In all the pressure of work, they must not be forgotten.

I was particularly pleasantly surprised by the fact that mortality rates dropped in all age groups of calves. You would imagine that the youngest group in particular would benefit, as they are naturally most at risk. However, we have seen the improvements take effect at all ages. We are even getting feedback from the subsequent link in the chain. There have been less losses in veal farming and less need for antibiotics. The quality of the calves has increased throughout. At LTO, we also try to allow other sectors to benefit from any knowledge accumulated. That is by no means easy, as dairy farms tend to gather more data per individual animal than any other sector.

The Minister would like to see a benchmark being rolled out for ‘young livestock mortality’ across the various sectors. KalfOK clearly plays a pioneering role in the process. The Council on Animal Affairs (Raad voor Dierenaangelegenheden, RDA) has also conducted a study of KalfOK, and refers to the system as being robust, reliable and truly exemplary. It is much more comprehensive than simply charting mortality figures.

This extensive system allows us to monitor effective care and make further improvements. At LTO, we would therefore like the Minister to approve the KalfOK system as the benchmark. Both KalfOK and the KVS calf monitoring system are used extensively by dairy farmers. As far as I’m concerned, the results of this study are a good reflection of the effort and energy invested by the sector in good calf care. The results are proof of that dedication, and are very pleasing. We are certainly motivated to continue on this chosen path.”

Our expert Inge Santman-Berends

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