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Benefits of a complete calf rearing system

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Arthur Davies switched to calf milk replacer to capitalise on the good price for his winter milk. Our second ForFarmers case study shows the knock-on benefits to health and performance are worth far more.

 

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When North Wales producer Arthur Davies switched his calves from whole milk to a calf milk replacer, he had a fairly straightforward and commercial reason for doing so.

 

He says: “I was struggling to meet the seasonality targets of our milk buyer. I just did not have enough winter milk to sell to them.”

 

Seeing penalties totalling £21,000 on his statement for missing his winter milk target galvanised him into action.

 

He switched to powdered milk in October 2017 with the aim of getting every litre possible sold off the farm, especially important while the milk price exceeded 34ppl.

 

He says: “With all the bonuses, we were being paid 34.25ppl by Glanbia for winter milk. We reckon the milk powder was costing closer to 22ppl.”

 

However, despite his motivation to capitalise on the winter milk price, the broader benefi ts Arthur accrued for his 225-head herd were worth far more.

 

He says: “Of course we knew feeding powdered milk would reduce the risk of transmitting Johne’s disease, but we do not have a particular problem with Johne’s on this farm.”

 

Other benefits

 

Farming at Trescawen Home Farm, Llangefni, Anglesey, he says other benefits of the change gradually accrued.

 

“I had already been working with ForFarmers’ youngstock specialist Rachael Kennerley and my area account manager Dyfrig Hughes, and we had made some changes to the calf rearing system a few years ago.”

 

The first thing the team recommended was switching to a higher quality calf starter pellet, aiming to increase intakes, improving rumen development and enhancing growth rates.

 

Rachael says: “We recommended VITA Start pellets because the farm had been struggling with starter feed intakes. Ideally, calves should be eating 2kg/day of calf starter before weaning, but at that time they were struggling to achieve 1kg/day.

 

“This could be for all sorts of reasons but often occurs because of palatability or because the balance of starch and fibre in the diet is not quite right.

 

“You need enough starch to produce the volatile fatty acids required for energy and growth in calves, but too much starch will lower rumen pH, potentially damaging rumen development and leading to inconsistent and overall lower intakes.”


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Balance

 

Rachael says VITA Start pellets have the correct balance of starch and digestible fibre to promote both rumen health and feed intakes, while minimising the risk of acidosis.

 

She says: “The pellets also contain the live yeast, Levucell TITAN, which will improve the digestion of hay or straw, stabilise their rumen pH and optimise rumen development.”

 

Arthur says he noticed the difference straight away and saw increased feed consumption from a much earlier age, as well as improved liveweight gain. He says: “Their feed conversion rates are so good at this age you can afford to spoil them a bit with a better product.”

 

It was not long after this switch was made that Rachael recommended another improvement to the system.

 

She says: “We did not really feel calves were getting enough colostrum, despite staying on the cow for 24 hours or more after birth.”

 

Her suggestion was to snatch calves at birth and give them an immediate feed of colostrum by tube, at the recommended level of 10% of the calf’s body weight in the fi rst six hours.

 

She says: “Calves in this herd are a little smaller than the average Holstein, so this would be about 3.5kg colostrum for a 35kg calf.”

 

While this had the desired effect of further improving the health and growth of calves, Arthur says the benefi t was also seen in cows. He says: “In the last couple of years since we have taken calves away earlier, cows appear to be less stressed.”

 

This has gone hand-in-hand with a substantial reduction in somatic cell count, which has declined from a 12-month rolling average in October 2016 of 194,000 cells/ml, to 139,000 cells/ml for the 12 months to January 2018. (ForFarmers Dairy Herd Manager costings).

 

By the time Arthur decided to make the transition to a powdered milk replacer, he was already making good progress and had complete confidence in taking advice from the ForFarmers team.

 

Rachael says: “When the switch came for the calf milk, we recommended VITAMILK Rearer, which includes a combination of skimmed milk and whey.

 

“This helps the calf in two ways. Skim acts in a similar way to whole milk, as it forms a clot in the gut which allows for a slower and more effi cient digestion in a very young calf. Its fat and protein are highly digestible, which means digestive problems are minimised, and the calf has plentiful energy and protein for growth and development.”

 

Meanwhile, she says ensuring the correct inclusion of whey helps encourage dry feed intake to achieve weaning on time

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Weaning

Weaning graph

 

She says: “Too much skim in the mix will reduce dry feed intake, making weaning increasingly difficult and potentially delayed.”

 

Today, some six months after the change was made to powdered milk, Arthur is delighted his ‘litres retained’ have dropped by 9,319, at a value of about £3,168 (9,319 x 34p) for the October to January (inclusive) period. However, the extra milk sold during the same four-month period is vastly more than the same period the previous year, and at 69,869 litres is worth an extra £23,000.

 

This is substantially more than the penalty reported the previous winter when the winter milk target was not met. Furthermore, with calf rearing practices improved, growth rates are up to 0.85kg from birth to post-weaning, which is well above the herd’s 0.79kg/ day target, and a significant improvement on 2017 when it was 0.73kg/day.

 

Arthur says: “I was particularly pleased with this after such a diffi cult autumn. The weather was terrible and calves were smaller than usual at birth.” Older heifers are similarly doing well, with weight gains from weaning to bulling having increased from 0.76kg/day in 2016 to 0.83kg/day today, which means they are heavy enough to be served 32 days earlier. (See graph above).

 

Furthermore, heifers now entering the herd are helping lift its performance. With the herd’s production now standing at 7,530 litres at 4.53% fat and 3.43% protein, produced from grass silage, wholecrop wheat and less than 1.5 tonnes/year of concentrates, performance is moving upwards, which is reflected in profits.

 

Dyfrig says: “There is plenty of evidence good growth rates go on to be reflected in better milk yields, which is exactly what we are see in here. Heifers have integrated into the herd well and their fertility is good, with most now seen bulling and served for their second lactations.”

Margins

 

Margin over purchased feed has risen to £1,744/cow/year (year ending January 18), up from under £1,000 about 12 months ago, while milk from forage is particularly impressive, potentially reflecting both silage quality and rumen health, at 4,436 litres/cow.

 

Arthur says: “Stock are now looking healthy and calves in particular are doing well. Heifers are calving younger and helping keep us on target for winter milk production.

 

“I am confident the improvements in rearing will feed through to milking performance, not just as young animals but throughout their adult life.”

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