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Target 24: It starts with the mindset

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.

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Alec Bowden
Alec Bowden
Target 24: It starts with the mindset

Some of the benefits of calving at two years are listed below (see panel), but there is so much more, according to ForFarmers, which has launched its Target 24 campaign, designed to help producers reach the two-year goal.

 

Those who do so can cut their feed costs during rearing by about £200/heifer and reduce their herd’s overall costs of production by 1.18ppl.

Ann Coombes, youngstock product manager of ForFarmers, who is spearheading the Target 24 campaign, says: “There is a lot of money at play and rarely any major changes needed to the farm or its infrastructure.

All that is required is a change of mindset.” One of the keys to reaching the goal of 24 months is to serve heifers by weight rather than by age.

Yet a survey carried out by ForFarmers in collaboration with Farmers Guardian and Dairy Farmer revealed many producers (some 40%) select heifers for service by age and 60% do not weigh youngstock at all.

Ms Coombes says: “It is all very well serving at a defined age, but if heifers have not reached the correct maturity by the time they get to that age, conception rates to first service will not be optimised.

“Continued growth during their first lactation will compromise milk production, and this lower production in the first lactation seems to set a ceiling on performance later in the animal’s life.” For this reason it is vitally important to serve by weight rather than age, which means meeting weight targets all the way through the rearing period if 24-month calving is to be achieved.


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These targets will be based on percentages of the herd’s mature body weight, including a target of 55% at the time of service.

To help dairy producers set and reach their goals, ForFarmers has equipped its youngstock specialists with an app which can not only tailor each rearing package to every farm, but will also reveal the financial benefits to the farm of improving age at first calving.

Ms Coombes says: “Targets can be set in consultation with our youngstock specialists, who can also help monitor progress.

“Achieving the right growth rates for each farm can have a profound impact on heifer maturity and body condition at the time of service, and there is no reason why conception rates to first service of 75% cannot be achieved.”

Benefits of calving at two years include:

  • Cutting feed and rearing costs
  • Reducing herd replacement rate
  • Improving health at calving and beyond
  • Increasing production and longevity

Case Study: Alec Bowden

 

Switching to autumn block calving around five years ago was an economic decision based on seasonal milk price for Alec Bowden and his family at Boswindjack Farm, near Constantine, Cornwall.

However, it was also the impetus for a change to two-year calving which has brought further financial benefits to the business.

The 380 pedigree Holsteins which give 9,700 litres at 4.21% fat and 3.44% protein (305 days, twice-a-day) are now said to ‘loosely block calve’ over a 21-week period from mid-August until late December.

So it is essential youngstock born in that timeframe calve two years later in the same period.

Mr Bowden says: “We cannot afford to get to autumn and think ‘these heifers are not big enough’ and then wait another month or more until we can serve.” Instead, he focuses attention on growth rates from the first weeks of life until the point of calving, making sure weights are on target every step of the way.

In fact, so successful have the Bowdens been at managing youngstock that they were named national winners in the Youngstock Producer of the Year category in the ForFamers Excellence in Farming Awards, as well as highly commended in the Cream Awards for Youngstock Health and Welfare, both in 2019.

Today, their Brill herd’s age at first calving has shifted from more than 28 months about five years ago to a herd average of 24 months, which inevitably means some heifers calve at 22 months.

The process began with a change in concentration of milk powder, which was increased from 600g/day to 900g/day on the advice of ForFarmers area dairy specialist Matt Jenkin.

Also switching to the wheybased VITAMILK Omega Gold, which contains the specialist health package Care+, Mr Bowden says: “Previously we fed the 600g/day and weaned at six weeks, but now we feed 900g/day in two feeds of three litres until calves hit 90kg.”

 

Trigger

 

The precise trigger for weaning is the smallest calf in each pen reaching this target weight, at which point weaning takes place over a period of three weeks.

He says: “We reduce powdered milk intakes to 600g/day, fed in two feeds of two litres on the first day of weaning and cut this again to 300g/ day a week later, when each feed is reduced in volume to one litre.” On day 21 of weaning, calves are completely withdrawn from milk, by which time they are eating 2.5-3kg/day of the VITA Calf Starter, which has been fed ad lib with straw since birth.

Mr Bowden says: “Under the old system we would wean over one week and found we had a post-weaning drop in growth rates from 0.95kg/ day to 0.4kg/day.

But by weaning over three weeks, growth rates hardly dip and remain at an average 0.9kg/day all the way through.” Calves remain on the creep feed until two weeks after the completion of weaning, then move on to an 18% protein home-mixed blend.

Mr Bowden says: “Under the old system we would wean over one week and found we had a post-weaning drop in growth rates from 0.95kg/ day to 0.4kg/day.

But by weaning over three weeks, growth rates hardly dip and remain at an average 0.9kg/day all the way through.” Calves remain on the creep feed until two weeks after the completion of weaning, then move on to an 18% protein home-mixed blend.

At about five months they are switched to a total mixed ration comprising grass silage and the same home-mix, moving on to grazed grass the following spring, at about eight or nine months of age.

Heifers are weighed before turnout and regrouped according to the daily liveweight gain required to hit the herd’s target service weight of 380kg.

They are weighed every two months and the feed rate adjusted according to each group’s progress.

Mr Bowden says: “I do this in consultation with Matt at ForFarmers, and we adjust the amount of concentrate as required.

We will be targeting growth rates of 0.7kg/day in the older better-grown group and up to 0.9kg/day in the younger group, pushing them on until they are in-calf.” This means they will receive 1-3kg concentrates while they are at grass as maiden heifers, depending on their group.

The same close watch is kept on weight gains over the winter housing period.

And when they are regrouped and turned out as in-calf heifers the following spring, they will be on course for calving at 630kg in condition score 2.5-3.

Mr Jenkin says: “The largest in-calf heifers may only need to gain 0.5kg/day, the middle group may be 0.7kg/day and the smallest may need to grow 0.9kg/day or more.

This means they will get anything from 0-2kg of concentrates while they are at grass, depending on their group.” Mr Jenkin’s verdict of the heifers is ‘they are like peas in a pod’.

He says: “We set the targets and work out how we are going to reach them and Alec sticks to the plan.

He will always go back and evaluate progress, measuring, monitoring and improving all the time.” The upshot is that heifers achieve outstanding fertility and ongoing performance.

Mr Bowden says: “About 10 years ago, we would have just grouped up, turned out and achieved a first service conception rate of about 40%.

“Under the new system, heifers achieve a conception rate of 65% using only sexed dairy semen and beef.” Big gains have also been made through more targeted use of feed.

He says: “We have taken away from those which do not need it and added to those which do.” This means the farm has no overgrown heifers nor those which are too small.

And importantly, he has saved a substantial amount of feed or grass keep during the rearing process by bringing each animal’s milking career forward by about four months.

ForFarmers Hub

ForFarmers Hub

This is a sponsored series brought to you by ForFarmers, offering guidance on Total Feed Solutions for conventional and organic livestock farming.

 

Find out more, visit the ForFarmers Homepage

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