There can be few practices on the farm which can be changed with so little investment, and to such great effect, than age at first calving. Still, the UK’s age at first calving remains stubbornly fixed at an average 28 months, despite the well-promoted benefits of calving at two years.
Rearing healthy, well-grown dairy heifers is a top priority for John Baggs at West Mill Farm, near Wareham, Dorset, as these animals are said to lay the foundations for everything that follows.
Running the 270-head milking herd as part of his family’s 324-hectare (800-acre) enterprise, he says getting the rearing right gives the best chance of achieving high conception rates to sexed semen and calving at 24 months.
The rearing process itself begins at the moment of birth and Mr Baggs has made two recent investments to improve the outcome at precisely this point.
He says: “We fitted a camera in the calving pen over a year ago and it has made a massive difference.
With a smartphone app and 4G internet across the whole farm, we can check calvings remotely all day and at any time of night.
“I live two miles from the farm, so I check everything before I go home and then again on the app at 9pm.
I may then set my alarm for midnight to check anything expected to calve is okay.
“This leaves very few hours before they are seen again at the time of morning milking, and the whole thing has made a massive improvement to our stillbirth rate.” Aspiration This has now declined to 4%, although the aspiration is that it will continue on its downward trend.
Another recent purchase which has had a profound impact on neonatal calves has been the farm’s introduction of a colostrum thawer.
Mr Baggs says: “This has allowed us to thaw and feed colostrum of known quality within half-an-hour, rather than wait for the mother to be milked or for a slower thaw.” The only colostrum saved comes from cows of known high health which has been checked with a Brix refractometer, which gives a good approximation of antibody levels and milk solids.
This ensures the calf receives the nutrition and antibodies she needs, ideally within two hours of birth.
This is by far the best time for her to absorb antibodies into the bloodstream, so optimising her immunity and ongoing health.
An unexpected knock-on benefit has been the young calf’s acceptance of the teat, which Mr Baggs says he has noticed is far better when she is fed within less than two hours of birth.
He says: “If you do not get to the calf until it is a few hours older, it may have sucked, had the edge taken off its appetite and not be interested in drinking milk from the teat.
“Teat feeding is what they are designed to do and I would much rather achieve this than have to tube.” Ann Coombes, youngstock specialist with ForFarmers, is in full agreement, and says: “Teat feeding is so much more natural for the calf and, if you choose to tube, there is a chance you might not feed the milk in the correct place.
“The sucking action also stimulates closure of the oesophageal groove, which ensures milk ends up in the abomasum and not in the rumen, where it would be fermented and cause rumen acidosis.”
Once the calf is moved to the calf pen after two three-litre feeds of colostrum, it is fed calf milk replacer through a milk bar teat feeder.
Mr Baggs says: “We keep calves in small groups and pay them close attention during this vulnerable time, making sure they are nice and robust before they go into larger groups on the computerised feeder.” From 24 hours, they are also offered hay in racks, as well as creep feed and water, which together help with their rumen development.
Once moved into groups of 20 at about two to three weeks old, they are fed ad lib through a Lely Calm feeder, which can dispense in small portions and increase overall intake.
The choice of milk replacer is critical to both calf health and growth and, for this, Mr Baggs opts to use ForFarmers 26% VITAMILK HiPro Heifer.
Ms Coombes says: “This powder has high levels of digestible protein and contains a generous amount of minerals, vitamins and trace elements, and the specialist health package, Care+.
“This includes the herbs fenugreek, eucalyptus, pine, mint and echinacea, which help improve gut and respiratory health and overall immunity.” A further boost to gut health, and rumen development in particular, comes through the farm’s use of ForFarmers Calf Complete nut.
Ms Coombes says: “This has been formulated to achieve quick rumen development and high liveweight gains.
It has the addition of the live yeast, Levucell, which stabilises and helps develop a healthy rumen.” Introduced at about five to six weeks of age, calves remain on this nut until after weaning.
This helps maintain the optimum rumen pH and ensures there is no check in growth at this time of change.
Mr Baggs says: “We aim to wean at 10 weeks and 100kg, but if there are calves which have not kept up their growth, we can extend their plan.
“But because each calf is EID tagged, we can adjust the milk rate for each one at any stage, which means calves are usually very consistent weights when we want to wean them.” Once heifers are settled after weaning, they are moved on to ForFarmers Super Grower 16.
This is offered ad lib until about four months, at which point grass and maize silage are introduced.
He says: “We keep them on 2kg concentrates until they are used to eating forage, as this ensures another smooth transition.” The care at every stage of the rearing process ensures heifers at West Mill Farm achieve an average daily liveweight gain of 900g from birth to bulling.
He says: “This allows us to get them served at 14 months and achieve the age at first calving we want.” Just as important in this process has been the heifers’ exceptional fertility, which has allowed for the use of sexed dairy semen on all those required to breed replacements.
Mr Baggs says: “We tried sexed semen three years ago and it did not go very well.
But last winter, we used it again and have been very pleased with the conception rate of 75%.” The continued success of the rearing process and the use of sexed semen has increased the number of heifer calves from which to choose replacements.
This means the Baggs family is now starting to genomically test its heifers, allowing greater selection pressure to be applied, diverting some to the beef route at an early stage and ultimately moving the herd’s genetics and performance up to the next level.