I took a few days off last week and headed out with my family in tow. After covering the Dublin Airport fiasco lately, I was glad we were going on a ‘holiday’.
We loaded up the car and made the short drive to a well-known family seaside resort in the Midlands. I have to say for anyone with a young family this place is just fantastic. It is a purpose built forest park with beautiful accommodation, a huge pool complex and countless activities that kept everyone entertained.
No matter where you looked, kids of all ages had a great time and parents were well looked after too. When it was built, a lot of people probably thought it was far too ambitious a plan, but now the station is regularly full and I imagine it pays for itself 10 times over.
Back home, I was once again in awe of the purpose-built complex and began to make the inevitable comparisons. My wife often says to me, “Does it all have to go to the cows? My answer is yes, of course it is!
There are many areas of agriculture where good planning and building something for this purpose may seem expensive initially but, over a short period of time, will pay for itself.
The most obvious area, especially from a veterinary point of view, is handling facilities. An elderly client once joked, as his crush literally disintegrated under the weight of a rather wild suckler cow: “If the crush was too good, the vet would be there all the time.”
I have to admit that when a call came in from this now retired client, no one rushed to raise their hand, but someone still called, regardless.
There is absolutely no excuse now for not having specially designed handling facilities. Even on a farm, where you may not have a long-term lease, place the studs in a slightly larger sleeve that is set in concrete. Thus, if the lease is terminated, the entire cage and enclosure can be dismantled and you really only lose a few meters of concrete.
Anyone with an off-farm job will know how precious time is when they go to the farm after work or on weekends. They don’t have time to tie pieces of portals together or chase livestock when they escape. The upfront cost can be daunting, but it’s guaranteed to pay for itself in time and peace of mind.
The most important reason for updating and improving material handling facilities is farm safety. There have been far too many near misses and some very tragic cases that could be attributed, at least in part, to substandard facilities. Even the quietest cattle can behave erratically when surrounded. There’s no point in hurting yourself for what is ultimately some steel bars and concrete.
As with all worthwhile things in agriculture, there is a subsidy available. Tranche 26 of TAMS II ends on July 1, so there is still time to apply. A good friend of mine once advised me when I was trying to convince myself to buy a kit: “Of course, once you get the grant, recover the VAT and deduct it from the tax, it’s is essentially free.”
Now that the sheds are empty and the silage done, it might be time to review some of the facilities you will be using five months from now when the cattle are housed. Think about it – only five months. If you want to make any changes, you’d really want to start shortly to make sure you’re not building and welding around hosted stock next November.
Calving pens are a facility of which there is hardly enough on any farm. Added to this is the fact that many are not easily accessible to clean with a charger or easy to wash. This means that due to too much activity, calving pens continue to be filled with straw daily. No sane person would face the daily cleaning of paddocks with a fork during an already manic spring.
Take a look around and see if it is possible to make existing enclosures more easily accessible. It can be as simple as hitting a wall or as difficult as building a new shed. At least troubleshoot it to see if your existing calving facilities are causing a problem.
Most cases of mastitis and subsequent SCC come from dirty calving pens. Likewise, this is where calves get joint disease, diarrhea and even Johne’s disease. In truth, it’s the first point of contact a calf has with the outside world and it sets him up or, in many cases, brings him back for the rest of his life.
When it comes to calves, calf rearing facilities are still lacking on many farms. For starters, if you have wooden pallets as pen dividers or slats, please put them in a big pile away from any shed. You can roast marshmallows on Halloween, because that’s all they do. Bacteria, coccidiosis and even ringworm will survive on old wood, so the only solution is to have none in the shed.
Similar to calving pens, calf sheds should be easily accessible for machinery to ensure they can be cleaned regularly. The accumulation of moisture and old soiled straw not only serves to stress the calves, but is also a breeding ground for many diseases that affect them.
There’s a reason “it’s harder to raise late calves” and “we never have problems with calves until March.” Yes, the weather is warmer, but the biggest cause by far is the buildup of disease-causing pathogens in substandard facilities.
You may need to upgrade your calf shelters, but just as easily you could have very good calf facilities and you may just need to raise fewer calves. Keeping fewer calves is the cheapest option and might just solve the problem. There is always more than one solution to a problem.
The idea of “purpose built” also extends beyond hangars. Roads are the source of many lameness problems and need to be addressed on many farms. Even a herd health plan, detailing actions such as dosing and vaccination, should be designed specifically for your farm.
Whatever the cost of any on-farm investment, measure the short- and long-term benefits. Like our vacation destination, if purpose built it will certainly pay for itself many times over.
Eamon O’Connell is a veterinarian at Summerhill Vet Clinic, Nenagh, Co Tipperary