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Preventative approach on an organic dairy farm

Disease? Not On My Farm! ambassador James Robinson believes taking a preventive approach combined with careful management is key to herd health.

Prevention is better than cure has always been the ethos for James Robinson, who farms at Strickley, near Kendal. But running an organic herd of 130 Dairy Shorthorns makes this even more important, as the use of antibiotics and anthelmintics are only permitted in certain circumstances. Mr Robinson says calf and subsequent heifer health and productivity is influenced before birth with careful dry cow management.

Cattle on an organic dairy farm

“We feed calves their own mother’s colostrum, ensuring they get sufficient colostrum within two hours of birth, but it is essential this is of good quality with plenty of antibodies, and I believe good dry cow management is essential for this.

We are an autumn-calving herd, so to manage dry cows, we keep them in over summer and feed them a specific diet of silage, straw and minerals, ensuring they do not get too fat. This has reduced incidences of slow fever, milk fever and retained cleansings.”

Working with your vet

Mr Robinson works with his vet Kirsty Ranson, of Westmorland Veterinary Group, to monitor calf and youngstock health very closely.

“Calves have a total protein test within the first 10 days to make sure they have sufficient antibodies. They are also weighed at birth and regularly afterwards right through the heifer rearing period,” says Ms Ranson.

“It is not just about spotting individual problems, it gives you an idea about group trends. By recording the small things, you get a picture of how things are doing generally.”

Last year, for the first time in many years, the farm had an outbreak of rotavirus in calves. Mr Robinson explains that although he didn’t know what prompted it, it affected around 20 calves.

“As a result, we have started to vaccinate against it and will continue to do so. We can’t afford to have any setbacks; calves need to grow as much as possible in the first month. A few kilos at a few weeks old can make a big difference at two years old.”

The herd is also vaccinated for leptospirosis, BVD, IBR and salmonella, as Mr Robinson explains: “We have been vaccinating against BVD for more than 20 years and also against IBR. We have never had a problem, but because this is a heavily stocked area, it gives us protection and adds value to stock.

“Because the cattle drink most of their water out of the beck, leptospirosis is a potential problem, so we vaccinate against that as well.

We have never had a clinical case of Johne’s disease, but we do quarterly testing. It is not cheap, but it is important we monitor it, particularly as we are feeding whole milk to calves.”


Youngstock are also given the husk vaccine the first summer before turnout, which should give them lifetime immunity, but occasionally, in very wet years, some adult cows need further treatment.

“If we want to use wormers, we have to take faecal egg counts to prove the need, then get a special dispensation the same as we do for antibiotics,” explains Mr Robinson.

This is also a challenge when dealing with liver fluke, which Mr Robinson believes is a nationwide problem.

“We try to manage grazing to limit fluke damage, but a problem for us is flukicides with a four-and-a-half-day milk withdrawal only treat adult liver fluke.

Other products have a longer withdrawal, so we have to wait until the drying off period to use these on cows. If necessary, we will treat youngstock two weeks after housing, but again, we have to prove the need to get dispensation from our accreditation body.”

Herd health

  • Calves fed sufficient quantity of mother’s colostrum within two hours of birth
  • Calves born after August wear calf jackets
  • Cows vaccinated for rotavirus and salmonella in the dry period which allows antibodies to be passed in the colostrum which protect the calf
  • Whole herd vaccinated for husk, IBR, BVD and leptospirosis


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