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Aiming for excellent calf rearing standards

Achieving high standards of youngstock performance is the focus of this new series from ForFarmers. This first case study shows how correct management is more important than state of the art infrastructure.

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Farming with relatively old and traditional buildings has proven no obstacle to excellent standards of calf rearing on West Mill Farm, near Wareham, Dorset. Here, John Baggs has made limited financial investment in changing facilities, but invested heavily in terms of effort and care.

 

The result on the 290-cow milking unit, which he farms as part of a 324-hectare (800-acre) enterprise with his parents, brothers, uncle and cousins, is a transformation in comfort, health, growth rates, age at first calving and the calibre of heifers entering the milking herd.

 

As a result, he was shortlisted as a finalist in the national ForFarmers competition for youngstock producer of the year. “Calves are the foundation of everything,” says John, who was given responsibility by his family for herd health and the youngstock rearing process about three years ago.

 

“If you get it wrong in the fi rst two months, you are always catching up.” At the centre of the operation is a steel-framed building, constructed as a hay store in the 1960s and not ideally suited to housing calves.

 

John says: “We used the shed to store straw, as well as house calves before and after weaning. They did not do well in it, as ventilation was not good and young calves were sharing airspace with older animals, risking the spread of disease, and the stocking rate was too high.”

 

The consequence of this was seen in a high incidence of scouring (28%), high levels of pneumonia (45%), an average daily liveweight gain of just 0.55g/head (birth to weaning) and unacceptably high mortality at 14% (24 hours to 12 weeks). However, the existing building had points in its favour, including its size (about 36 metres by 18m), its good position and its scope to be changed.


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Location

 

John says: “It was in the right location; it was close to the dairy, which was good for colostrum management, and close to calving cows, but it had to be changed for rearing calves.” The work began by emptying the shed of all partitions and internal walls and removing the stacked straw, although the uneven stone and concrete floor had to remain to keep within cost constraints.

 

The biggest financial outlay was saved for the computerised Lely Calm calf feeder, which was installed in the shed and would feed up to 60 calves. It allowed for smaller more precise portioning, but achieved higher intakes. But before calves are moved on to the feeder, colostrum management would be the team’s highest priority, along with nurturing calves in their first two to three weeks of life.

 

John says: “Colostrum management was actually the fi rst thing we looked at. Previously, calves were having one three-litre feed, then staying on the cow for 48 hours.”

 

However, taking bloods to test for the absorption of antibodies revealed calves’ immunity levels were poor and colostrum intakes needed to increase.

 

He says: “We increased colostrum to two feeds of three litres within the first 12 hours, and removed the calf from the cow as quickly as we could after birth. Whenever we have tested calves since the change, the serum antibody level in their blood is exactly as it should be.”

 

At the same time, a Brix refractometer was introduced to measure the quality of colostrum, giving an approximation of antibody levels and milk solids. This allows the highest quality colostrum to be fed to calves or frozen for later use.

 

With the shed now reconfigured into pens of about 3m by 5m, calves which have completed their colostrum intake are moved on in batches of five.

 

John says: “To start with, they stay in the pen of five and are fed on a teat feeder twice-a-day for two to three weeks. They need nurturing at this age and we can make sure they are strong and healthy before they go on to the computerised feeder.”

 

From 24 hours, they are also offered hay in racks, as well as creep feed and water, which together help get their rumen development moving.

 

John says: “We also switched from a standard to a high quality milk powder and creep feed, and by the time we wean at 10 weeks, they are eating 4kg/day of the creep.”

 

Ann Coombes, youngstock specialist with ForFarmers, says: “I recommended the calves went on to the 26% VITAMILK HiPro Heifer, because it was obvious this farm would get the best out of it.

 

“Standards of husbandry are so high I knew they would not be losing the quality ingredients out of the rear end of the calf, but would really help put them to work.

 

“This powder has high levels of digestible dairy protein and contains a balanced amount of vitamins, minerals and trace elements, and a specialist health package called Care+.

 

“This includes the plant extracts fenugreek, eucalyptus, pine, mint and echinacea, which help boost gut and respiratory health, and enhance overall immunity.”

Before and after figures for West Mill Farm

Before After
Mortality 14% 2%
Daily liveweight gain (to weaning) 0.55kg/day 0.8kg/day
Cases of scour 28% 7%
Cases of pneumonia 45% 30%
Age at first calving 30 months 25 months

 

Creep feed

 

At the same time as the switch from a value to a premium milk replacer, John also made the switch to the premium creep feed, VITA Start.

 

He says: “We find the high quality pellets early in life really stimulate rumen development. We also tried hay, as we were short of straw, and found calves did really well on it. There were no pot bellies and they were chewing the cud by one month of age.”

 

Ann says: “As well as containing all of the nutrients the calf needs for frame development and health, this creep feed contains the live yeast Levucell TITAN. This live yeast stimulates early rumen development.”

 

Adding a word of praise for the whole team, she says: “The overall standards of hygiene and stockmanship are outstanding, which comes from the whole team. John’s mum Nicky keeps the calf feeder glistening – she cleans it everyday and with two sets of teats, one set can be disinfected every day. John’s girlfriend Sophie is a vet and has an input into calf health.”

 

Once each group of five is moved on to the machine, feed rates are stepped up to as much as 10 litres/day, in as many feeds as each calf chooses.

 

John says: “At five weeks, milk intakes start to be restricted, firstly to seven litres/day, then to six litres/day by the age of eight weeks, then down to zero by the time they are 10 weeks old. “The gradual weaning gives the calves a great transition from milk to solids. You do not know they are weaned until you look at the computer screen.”

 

Weaning may be subtle, but performance fi gures at West Mill Farm shout out loud, giving unambiguous evidence a transformation has occurred. Daily liveweight gain has increased from 0.55kg/day to 0.8kg/day; mortality has declined from 14% to 2%; incidence of calf scour has declined from 28% to 7%; and pneumonia has dropped from 45% to 30%.

Work in progress

However, the latter is still a work in progress, with a positive pressure ventilation system having just been installed within the last few weeks, which is said to have made an instant impact on air quality.

 

John says: “Heifers coming through to the herd last year were the best we have ever had. They were bigger, stronger and nicer heifers, and every time we have a new batch, they are a bit younger and a bit higher yielding than the batch before.”

For more information:

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