Optihouse: How clean is your house?

Recent research from AFBI Hillsborough has highlighted on-farm calf mortality rates of up to 6% – a figure which has not decreased over the last number of decades across the UK.

Furthermore, the Royal Veterinary College in the UK has indicated that more than 40% of calves on commercial farms suffer from pneumonia, which has an average financial cost of £43 per calf. Aside from the immediate costs of treatment, ill health in early life can cause delayed growth rates which leads to delays in breeding and calving age and a depressed level of milk production, overall resulting in a major loss in production efficiency. Calf ill-health and mortality are predominantly a function of the housed environment, husbandry and nutrition.  However, little is understood about the true impacts of the housed environment in the early life of the calf.  As a result the ‘Optihouse project’, being led by AFBI Hillsborough, is currently underway to address this major gap in knowledge. This project utilises CIEL co-funded capability.

What is the Optihouse Project?

Optihouse is a large scale calf housing project which is currently being carried out on dairy farms across Northern Ireland which incorporates research teams from AFBI Hillsborough and Queen’s University Belfast, the CAFRE Dairy Advisory team and a group of international veterinary, academic and industry experts. The overall objective of Optihouse is to increase the efficiency of feed and labour within calf rearing enterprises by optimising the rearing environment and calf management. In order to achieve this, one of the main elements of the project has been to gain a better understanding of the conditions in calf rearing houses within Northern Ireland. This understanding will help identify the influence of key factors, linked to poor environmental conditions and failure to deliver expected growth, such as building design, hygiene practices and calf nutrition.

Farm Surveys
In Spring 2019, AFBI alongside the CAFRE Dairy Advisory team completed assessments on 66 dairy farms across Northern Ireland.  These assessments specifically focused on calf housing and rearing systems. Detailed information on management practices, animal health and performance and the physical characteristics of the rearing house including ventilation and hygiene assessments were recorded. As expected a large variation in housing design, management and calf and house performance was observed. However, one common theme was aligned with hygiene. 

Hygiene in the calf shed
Hygiene of the calf’s environment plays a key role in the prevalence of calf enteritis and respiratory disease, with calves most vulnerable to disease during the milk feeding period. As part of the Optihouse project, Aaron Brown (AFBI/QUB PhD Student) and the AFBI technical team collected samples from the calf house environment, this included milk or milk replacer to be fed to calves, calf starter feed, water from drinkers and swabs from bedding and feeding equipment. The samples were then analysed for indicators of potential disease causing organisms including total viable bacterial counts (TVC), coliforms and E.coli.

One of the key findings from this analysis highlighted the need for better hygiene with regard to water quality.  Water is a driving factor for concentrate intake and therefore is essential for rumen development. Providing calves with clean drinking water and maintaining high levels of hygiene for drinking facilities is therefore vital. However, currently, there are no set standards for drinking water quality in calves as there are within the pig and poultry sectors. When the drinking water samples collected within the calf houses were compared with the Red Tractor Pig standards, only a small proportion of the samples met the standards.

Preliminary results from samples taken from calf feed and feed preparation equipment have also indicated a high level of bacteria, thus putting young calves at high risk of ill health.

These results stress the fact that much opportunity exists to improve hygiene on farms.  It is known that such improvements will contribute positively to calf health. 

The next phase of the project will involve a series of controlled studies utilising metabolism chambers funded by CIEL to measure impacts & interactions between level/type of calf nutrition, bedding, calf grouping & environmental conditions. This knowledge will help inform best practice & refine calf rationing systems to better reflect performance under a range of environmental conditions. 

The Optihouse project is funded by DAERA with additional funding from AgriSearch.