Block calving 430 cows means a lot of calves have to be attended to all at once, and to ensure full attention a strict colostrum protocol has been adopted on one Welsh farm. Debbie James has the story.
Bottle feeding colostrum to every newborn calf has transformed youngstock health at a 430-cow spring calving dairy farm in Ceredigion.
That first feed can take up to 30 minutes and at peak calving there can be around 17 calves born in a 24-hour period but the farmer, Adam Jones, says the protocol has had a positive influence on calf health.
He introduced this policy in a bid to raise calf immunity against infection from cryptosporidium.
Adam says: “The advice I was given is that once you have crypto it is very difficult to get rid of it but you can give calves a better chance of avoiding it by the way you manage your colostrum, particularly feeding according to the three ‘Qs’ - quality, quantity and quickly.’’
Calves get that first feed within two hours of birth – volume depends on the calf but it ranges from 2-4 litres, and the time taken to feed can be as little as five minutes but as high at 30 minutes.
It is a job Adam shares with his herdsman and his wife, Kate. “I do the nights and they do the days,’’ he says.
The colostrum is stored in an industrial-size fridge and warmed in a water bath fitted with a heating element.
Milk from the second milking is also stored in the fridge and this is also bottle fed. Milk from cows in the colostrum group is stored in an old milk tank and fed to the calves for the next four days before they move on to milk replacer fed twice-a-day.
All bottles and teats used for the first two feeds are disinfected between calves.
Relevant details including time of birth, the amount of milk consumed in each of the first five feeds, and the time of feeding, are all recorded on blackboards.
According to Adam he has had very few cases of cryptosporidium since he introduced the system, he says: "By observing our protocols to the letter the calves are definitely healthier.’’
Another change he has made to youngstock rearing is housing calves in a polytunnel until they are weaned at eight to 10 weeks, when they are eating 2kg of concentrates.
This system was introduced when the business switched to spring block calving.
“With so many calves being born in a short period I was concerned about disease issues in the calf pens,’’ says Adam. Half the herd calves in the first two weeks, and additional capacity was also needed as cow numbers expanded.
The 30 by 120 feet open-ended polytunnel can accommodate up to 100 calves and can be accessed by a tractor and straw chopper for bedding and a milk trailer for feeding milk replacer.
“We have used it for four seasons, it is nice and airy and the calves do well in it,’’ says Adam.
The heifer replacements are reared in this and the beef calves from Aberdeen Angus sires are housed in another shed.
Heifer calves are weighed when they are weaned and turned out to grass and weighed every month thereafter until calving. The aim is to produce a 520-550kg cow so the target weight for heifers at breeding is 330kg.
“I don’t specifically watch growth curves but monitor daily liveweight gain, I aim for an average growth of 0.7kg/day to meet targets,’’ says Adam.
Calves share the grazing platform with the cows – two fields are set aside for them. “We don’t graze them hard, it is no good keeping grazing tight for the calves because it kills their growth rates.’’
Calves are supplemented with 1kg/head of cake until the end of July. “This gets them past the point where they can manage without concentrates,’’ he adds.
It has been a process of expansion since he returned to the farm in 2004 after studying agriculture at Harper Adams University. At that time the family was milking 110 cows but they have since taken on additional land, both purchasing land and renting on five and seven year agreements, and have grown the business.
“As soon as we started to expand a lot more opportunities came our way,’’ says Adam.
The herd was initially calving over 10 months, but calving was then run as a split system for three years with half the herd calving in the spring and half in the autumn.
But spring block calving was a natural fit for the farm as it grows high quantities of good quality grass through the whole growing season. Breeding in the autumn calvers was slipped for two years to make the conversion to spring calving, and the herd now calves in a 12-week block from February 14th.
“We have that spread because we have been expanding numbers and wanted to do so with our own stock rather than buying in -- we can now start to tighten the block,’’ he explains.
Cows are turned out to grass at calving and graze until the end of November. The herd is predominately British Friesian but with some Jersey crosses and Swedish Reds.
“We were running an 8500-litre cow but that was a big animal for our system so we dropped yield back and cow size, and increased stocking rate.’’
Cows produce an average of 6500 litres from 1.2kg of concentrates with 4000 litres produced from forage. Stocking rate on the grazing platform is 4.6 livestock units/ha.
“We aim for an average mature cow weight of 520kg – some are over 700kg and others only 400kg. There is a big range but any animal that is big is bred to a Jersey or Jersey cross,’’ says Adam.
The cow type has consistently been bred for high constituents – these are currently 4.4% butterfat and 3.7% protein and milk is sold to Dairy Partners. Adam aims to match milk solids to cow size kilogramme for kilogramme.
“If we have a 530kg cow we aim for 530kg of solids. That is where breeding comes into play, and we can be selective,’’ says Adam.