John Joyce: The steps I take to avoid sickness at weaning time

We are all weary of hearing about Covid vaccination, but at this time of year on a suckler farm, vaccination is a hot topic.

or the last few years we have being vaccinating the weanlings before both weaning and housing, with two vaccines.

There are two reasons for this. Firstly, despite all the good farming practices in place at housing, we were still encountering plenty of problems with sick weanlings.

Secondly, the BEEP scheme encouraged a robust vaccination programme.

Weaning is an important part of an animal’s life nearly as important as calving, some would say, in terms of getting it right.

This calf has been living 24/7 with its mother for six to nine months. It has been single-suckled, with little human interaction, so a very strong bond will have developed.

Imagine the stress involved in being housed over the next few weeks, plus getting used to a new diet, as well as being weaned. And most of these weanlings would have experienced minimal stress in their life, unless they had scour or some other problem as a calf.

With the increase in value of these cattle this year, it is all the more important to get this process right.

Vaccination is not cheap, but what is the cost of treating sick animals with antibiotics? Veterinary cost? Extra time observing them?

And that’s before you factor in the loss of an animal.

There is no silver bullet for getting the weaning process right; it is a combination of vaccination, meal feeding before weanling and having good shed ventilation and space when they are housed.

I will leave my weanlings outside for as long as possible, as ground conditions for grazing are still very good.

But how long do you leave them out without affecting the spring grass? You don’t want to rob Peter to pay Paul.

The downside of the mild weather is that it facilitates the spread of infection. Respiratory diseases are now the most common cause of sickness and death in cattle greater than one month of age.

For the past few years we have been using two vaccines. This policy has worked well and has been worth the money.

Before this we were running into problems. It is very frustrating to bring an animal to this stage of its life and then get into difficulty. It was mainly problems with weanlings getting setbacks and not thriving in the way they should be.

The first one we started to use is the Bovilis IBR marker live; this is a 2ml shot and protects against IBR.

The virus showed up in blood tests we did a number of years ago.

I was surprised at the time, but it turns out that it is highly contagious, and a common cause of respiratory diseases in cattle: over 75pc of herds in Ireland have been exposed to it. Most herds that are heavily stocked have it.

We are only vaccinating the weanlings a number of weeks before housing, but probably should be treating the cows as it can be passed to the newborn via the cow’s milk.

The second vaccine is the Bovilis Bovipast RSP, which covers respiratory syncytial virus, known as RSV; Mannheimia haemolytica; and Parainfluenza3, known as PI3.

I noticed that a lot of animals that are advertised privately for sales are vaccinated with this one.

All the calves were treated for lungworm in the summer, and as we will have no purchased stock at this back end due to sufficient numbers of our own rearing, there will to no additional virus brought onto the farm.

Cows and calves will be weighed this week for Action 1 of the BEEP scheme. It has been a good scheme to date and there has been a big uptake.

For those of us left in the suckling game, it’s clear we will have to do it right and use all tools available to us if we are to last.


John Joyce farms at Carrigahorig, Nenagh, Co Tipperary

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