Essential Oils Boost Calf Health

Alternative therapies are being widely used in other sectors to improve livestock health, however, with a lack of research in the dairy industry farmers are falling behind. Vet Charlie Carslake recently carried out a trial to assess such treatments in calves.

There is no denying that the whole agricultural industry is cracking down on antibiotic use, and while UK farming has been proactive in reducing usage to an historic low, there is still work to be done. The pig and poultry sectors are already seeing the benefits of using preventative and therapeutic strategies, but there has been little research into how this can benefit ruminant livestock.

Essential oils are becoming an increasingly popular tool to improve animal health. By helping to stimulate the immune system and with anti-microbial properties, essential oils can promote cattle health in a very similar way to other animals.

At the moment, there doesn’t seem to be enough focus on calf rearing, but investing in calf health brings long term gains – and it is especially important to target youngstock before the rumen develops. Faster growing animals are less likely contract health issues and for every 100g of additional daily gain in the first two months of life, you get 226kg of milk in the first lactation.

Here at ABC, we have been investigating the use of SoluQox – a mixture of essential oils and fatty acids. Designed for use in calves, the product is already being widely used in Holland where the drive towards reducing antibiotic usage has led many farmers and vets to adopt holistic initiatives to boost animal health.

We carried out a randomised control trial at Bicton College’s Home Farm in Devon – a 150-head herd of Jersey cross cows with a history of coccidiosis problems. The 43 calves used in the trial were split into treatment and control groups – with the calves in the treatment group receiving a single dose of SoluQox at five weeks old, while a placebo was given to the control group.

The results were assessed by carrying out weekly faecal samples to analyse the coccidiosis burden, alongside regular weighing to calculate the daily live weight gain.

While SoluQox didn’t appear to influence the level of Coccidial oocysts, the difference in daily live weight gain between the treatment and control group was significant. The treatment group grew 10% faster than the others over the eight-week trial period, with a mean daily live weight gain of 0.800g against 0.716g in the control group.

While there is still work to be done to assess just how essential oils work, the results speak for themselves, with improved intestinal health, immunity, feed absorption and increased feed consumption.

Of course, this is no silver bullet – there is still no substitute for good husbandry. Identifying any issues early on in a calf’s life and having good rearing programme in place is key – preventative therapies are the icing on the cake.

Farm manager Rob Stoner headed up the trials at Bicton College and has been thoroughly impressed with the improvements he has seen in this year’s calf crop. “Historically, the college had always suffered with Coccidiosis – caused mainly by high stocking rates,” he explains. “Our main source of treatment in the past has been antibiotics, and coming from an organic background, I wanted to implement a more holistic approach – which made us perfect candidates for the trial.”

The spring calving herd started the trial in mid-February this year, and the benefits have been clear. “The product worked really well for us and gave the calves a good start,” says Mr Stoner.

Antibiotic use is now minimal on the farm and calf health has improved greatly. “Calf mortality is at an all-time low, in fact, we didn’t lose any this year – we are definitely going to continue with this approach across the farm.”

While there is obviously an additional labour requirement when it comes to drenching youngstock, it is better than treating sick animals, he adds. “The beauty about prevention is that you are actually doing something to boost the health of an animal – it is great for building immunity and makes you a better herdsperson in general.”

While there will likely always be a need for some antibiotics, the farm is aiming to put holistic measures in place wherever possible. “We are very much a commercial farm, and welcome anything new that will help increase quality and longevity in the herd,” says Mr Stoner. “A lot of health issues are environmental so alongside a good system and management these products can work really well.”