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First Week of Life is Key to Improving Survival Rates in Calves and Lambs

Improved new-born lamb and calf survival rates not only result in increased income, but also improve welfare, reduce disease, and reduce environmental footprint, according to the results of major GB-wide research.

The Neonatal Survival Project, funded by AHDB, Hybu Cig Cymru (HCC) and Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) in the sheep and beef sector, was established to study the key factors which could drive further improvements in farm efficiency and maximise animal welfare.  

Key findings show that the majority of lamb and calf losses occur in the first seven days after birth, with over 98 per cent of lamb and 90 per cent of calf losses occurring in this period.

The findings – and the recommendations for new practices to be adopted on farms – will be discussed at two major webinars. The first will be held on 5 January for vets followed by an event on 21 January for farmers. To register visit ahdb.org.uk/events.

A spokesperson on behalf of the three levy boards said:

“A survey and interviews were used to understand motivations and barriers for change. While many farmers were aware of good practice industry advice on new-born survival, it was not consistently followed. This was particularly true with respect to colostrum management and genetic selection.

 “Farmers were confident in their abilities to improve survival rates, but tended to underestimate new-born losses on their farm relative to national averages. A cultural stigma around losses limits farmers in discussing their experiences with peers, and in some cases, even with their vet.

“The research also discovered that losses can be highly variable between years; the importance of accurate record keeping also became apparent. While most suckler farmers have access to reliable records, a significant number of sheep farmers do not consistently record their data.”

With global pressures to reduce antibiotic use, this study found that a significant proportion of beef and sheep farmers were able to manage infectious diseases without purchasing critically important antibiotics. Preventive antibiotic use was reduced or withdrawn successfully on some farms, while oral antibiotic treatment at birth made no difference to lamb outcomes in an experimental study within this project.

The study also demonstrated that good long-term protein status in late pregnancy results in reduced lamb losses between scanning and 24 hours old.

Twin born lambs with a low serum antibody (IgG) concentration were more likely to have poorer growth rates. As shown by previous studies, poor energy balance in late pregnancy results in a low lamb IgG. This indicates that lambs born to ewes in negative energy balance are at increased risk of absorbing insufficient colostrum antibodies from the ewe.

The project is now complete, although work is ongoing to enable the implementation of a sustainable youngstock survival plan across Great Britain.