Paper written by PhD student and IfA livestock research assistant Laura Palczynski.
The scientific research literature indicates that calf health and welfare could be improved on dairy farms globally. Preventing disease in calves or treating disease quickly and appropriately when necessary has been shown to improve lifelong health and production parameters, but success is ultimately determined by the persons responsible for calf care at the farm level. This paper presents findings from semi-structured interviews with farmers and advisors about dairy calf rearing in England. This research highlights the vital importance of the human element of calf rearing, and how it influences the interactions among calves, pathogens, and the environment to maintain calves in good health or otherwise. Calf rearers often found it difficult to pinpoint a specific disease problem, causal factor, or likely solution, causing frustration and a perceived inability to reduce calf morbidity and mortality, which resulted in inaction. The person(s) responsible for calf rearing are often not those who control farm finances, which can often result in underinvestment in facilities and stockmanship efforts hindered by suboptimal calf housing. It is, therefore, essential that efforts to promote disease management practices not only focus on technical solutions, but also the mindset, priorities, and experiences of the persons responsible for calf rearing and the allocation of farm finances.
Calf morbidity and mortality rates are often high in dairy herds, raising animal welfare concerns and negatively affecting farm economic efficiency and future performance. Disease prevention is critical to maintain calves in good health, but interventions are dependent upon the persons conducting them. This paper explores the perceptions of farmers, farm workers, veterinarians, and other advisors on the management of calfhood disease on dairy farms in England. Participants were recruited using purposive and “snowball” sampling, resulting in 40 in-depth, semi-structured interviews—26 with dairy farmers and 14 with advisors. Interviews were recorded, transcribed, and thematically coded. Three major themes were derived on the basis of interview data: disease occurrence and treatments, management of calf environment, and the role of stockmanship and perceived control. Respiratory and gastrointestinal diseases in calves were those reported to be most problematic on dairy farms. Limited time and financial resources caused some farmers and advisors to experience a perceived inability to control calf health without antimicrobial treatments. Overall, the findings emphasise the importance of human influences on calf health and disease in the context of influencing the interactions among the host, pathogens, and the environment. Further research should investigate what “attention to detail” means within different farm contexts and practices, as this was believed to be important in the promotion of better husbandry standards and health. We recommend the use of supportive knowledge exchange processes, including facilitation, to empower farmers to promote continuous improvement in calf health.