Project Code: B-21-15

Project Summary

Successful calf rearing is critical for profitable dairy beef production.  Provision of adequate levels of nutrition and ensuring that animal health and welfare are optimised are fundamental to ensure calf rearing is done as efficiently as possible.  Calf morbidity during calf rearing results in calves not meeting target live weights and, therefore, increased costs within dairy beef systems. 

This project aligns with a number of DARD and AgriSearch funded research programmes conducted at AFBI Hillsborough looking at the rearing calves from the dairy herd for both dairy replacements and beef production.  Within this project a number of methods to reduce calf mortality and morbidity during the calf rearing period will be assessed along with the effect of calf morbidity on lifetime performance. 

A wide range of knowledge exchange techniques will be used during the project including attendance at beef events such as Beef Expo, farm walks, conferences etc. and publication of results in press, on website, at conferences and in scientific papers to ensure that the findings of this project are conveyed to all stakeholders within the industry. 



To identify ways of reducing calf health problems and therefore, optimise beef cattle performance, welfare and efficiency through short and long term impacts.

  1. Develop and demonstrate strategies to reduce health problems

  2. Investigate possible strategies to identify problems sooner

  3. Determine the impact of calf health on lifetime performance and costs of production

  4. Investigate interactions between health and other management factors such as nutrition

  5. Development of new systems of youngstock management

  6. Investigate possible methods to lower antibiotic use

  7. Evaluate natural products as an alternative to prophylactic antibiotic use.

  8. Evaluate the effect of calf jackets on health and performance of dairy-origin calves

Dr Francis Lively

Research Provider: AFBI

Project Lead: Francis Lively

Project Team: Naomi Rutherford, Steven Morrison, 

Co-Funding: AHDB and Industry Partners

Start Date: 1st April 2016

End Date: 31st December 2019

Background / Need

Previous AFBI research has identified that approximately 15% of dairy-origin beef calves do not have a high level of immunity within their blood which indicated they have either not received enough colostrum or the colostrum they received was of low quality. Once reared and finished calves with low immunity had lower lifetime performance and required an additional 17 days to reach the same slaughter weight as their counterparts which had adequate levels of immunity within their blood, hence leading to significantly lower margins despite having a similar value at purchase.  Additionally, an on-farm study conducted by AFBI demonstrated that within the majority of dairy-origin beef production systems low performing animals existed and these animals were a major concern and constraint to profitability.  Industry data captured from BovIS within Northern Ireland illustrates that during 2014 21.5% of Holstein cattle slaughtered as young bulls failed to achieve 240 kg carcass weights.  Hence 21.5% of these young bulls were outside the minimal carcass weight specification and would therefore have been exposed to deductions.  This is a major cost for both the producer and the processor.  Producers report this as a key problem whilst rearing and finishing dairy-origin beef cattle and describe these “poor performers” as being a huge cost and burden to the system.  The huge cost being the low performance and higher veterinary costs.  Andrews (2000) reported that the cost of calf pneumonia within dairy-origin beef calves ranged from £8.59 to £78.74, with an average cost of £43.26.  Within this study 26% of the cost was attributed to loss in performance.  Veterinary labour and medicines accounted for 19 and 22%, respectively.   

Antibiotics are vital medicines in both human and animal health.  Antibiotic resistance is a serious public concern and the responsible use of antibiotics in all sectors, including the livestock sector, is needed to tackle the problem (Code of Practice on the responsible use of animal medicines on the farm, 2014).  As such, antibiotics should not be used as a substitute for good farm management.  Consumers are particularly concerned and expect limited use of antibiotics at a farm level.  However, dairy-origin beef calves can be difficult to rear particularly once they are moved from the dairy herd to a central calf rearing unit where they mix with calves from other units, exposing them to a greater disease challenge, in addition to encountering a change in diet.  Despite good vaccination protocols and good farm husbandry, levels of disease can still be high leading to both mortality and morbidity which is a major production cost.  Antibiotic treatment as a preventive to disease is not seen as a responsible use of medicines by the Veterinary Medicines Directorate, however the use of a long acting antibiotic to a calf at approximately 2 weeks of age (during its potentially most stressful and challenging period of its life) needs quantified and measured.  If this treatment reduced the need for subsequent treatments the overall lifetime antibiotic usage may be reduced.  Natural plant extracts contain secondary metabolites that have shown antimicrobial activity (Cowanc,1999).  Soltan (2009) has shown that essential oil supplementation reduced the necessity of antibiotic treatments against digestive and respiratory diseases in Holstein male calves.  However, there remains limited data to support these conclusions so this area requires further research.         

An ability to control the temperature of a calf house is limited on many UK farms as the housing normally relies on natural ventilation.  Obviously, this changes to high degree with the weather which can be very variable depending on the time of year and even between day-time and night-time.  A young calf tries to maintain it body temperature as constant as possible by converting energy into heat loss.  Recently, there has been interest in calf coats or calf jackets which helps to keep the calf warm and thereby reduces the energy required for heat loss and directs this energy into growth.  To date there remains limited information on the effects of calf jackets on dairy calves intended for beef production.

This project aims to improve health and welfare of dairy beef production animals.  Furthermore, animal nutrition and growth will be improved through better management techniques and improved feed use efficiency in growing and finishing dairy beef cattle. 


Economic Benefits

1) Reduced morbidity during the calf rearing phase leading to better lifetime performance and improved efficiency.  Every 1% increase in performance could lead to an additional 2.7 kg carcass weight at slaughter with the same level of input.  At a beef price of £3 kg for typical dairy bred bull this equates to £8.10 per head.  Based on 920,000 offspring potentially available for beef production from the dairy herd this could have a value of £7.45 million.   

2) Reduced mortality

3) Reduced age at slaughter

4) Reduced veterinary costs

5) Improved carcass weight and classification – leading to less penalties for carcasses not meeting the desired specification

6) Less offal condemnations 


Non-Monetary Benefits

  • Reduced medicine – Through looking at improved nutrition and prophylactic use of antibiotics upon arrival at the calf rearing unit it is hoped that overall morbidity levels will be reduced and, therefore, medicine use reduced also. 
  • Reduced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – Through the reduction in morbidity levels, the efficiency within the systems should be increased which in turn should reduce the GHG emissions.  Inclusion of plant extracts has been shown to reduce GHG emissions for ruminants. 
  • Increased performance – Through better health and nutrition the performance of dairy origin cattle will increase.
  • Increased profitability – lower mortality, lower veterinary input and better performance should increase margins from dairy-origin beef production
  • Improved welfare – better health will reduce mortality and therefore lead to improved welfare of the animals
  • Improved consumer confidence – due to the improved welfare, lower mortality and lower usage of antibiotics in rearing beef cattle
  • Reduced wastage – more dairy origin cattle meeting the market specifications