Two years ago, Karen and Tom Halton from Congleton in Cheshire were paying £14,000 a month to have their replacement heifer calves reared but have now taken on the task in-house.
Mrs Halton says: “Not only was it very expensive, but it is almost impossible to find people who will take care of your animals the same way you do. These calves are the future of our farm – they have to be made a priority."
Mrs Halton says dairy heifer calves and beef calves are managed differently to suit their future roles. However, both are given a strong foothold for a healthy start to life with a priority on biosecurity and colostrum intake.
She says: “It is in our management plan to eradicate Johne’s Disease and at calving we keep all positive cows separate from clean cows. We also have a dedicated calving pen. Once cows begin the calving process, they are moved into the pen to calve, which is then completely disinfected after each use.”
Once calved, cows are allowed to lick their calves clean and any dampness leftover is dried away. All calves are bottle fed four litres within the first hour of being born, or approximately 10 percent of its body weight, with colostrum milked from the dam after it has been tested with a refractometer.
Mrs Halton says: The standard protocol for the dairy calves is to only bottle feed colostrum. Occasionally one refuses to suck, so we will have to stomach tube it. However, a trick I have is to mix in electrolytes with the colostrum when they will not take it. The sweetness makes them more likely to suck and the electrolytes fire them up.”
Post colostrum feeding, beef calves are removed from their dam and placed in a pen with one to two other beef calves and teat fed milk powder for a week. This trains them to nipple feed before being moved to a larger pen of five calves to ad-lib feed off a milk warmer. A calf buyer comes once a week to take the three-week old beef calves.
Dairy heifer calves are moved into a training pen post colostrum bottle feeding, where they are trained on a Volac Förster Technik Vario Smart Feeder, which feeds them up to 10 litres of milk per day. For the first week, calves are kept in the training pen and fed milk powder before being transitioned to a larger group.
Mrs Halton says: “Calves wear collars with sensors that track how much and how many times they are feeding. All this data can then be tracked on the Calf App on the iPad so I can monitor calf performance from anywhere.
“Intake decreases and less feeder visits often signals the early stages of an ill calf before we can physically see it. These calves go through a lot during their first few weeks of life –from being moved twice shortly after being born, the change from colostrum to powder and socialisation with other calves, making it essential we keep a close eye on their health.”
Along with data tracking, which also includes daily liveweight gain, the machine takes pressure off the labour intensities of rearing calves, with the ability to feed 120 calves at a time and self-clean and self-calibrate. It also weans calves based on the farm’s age-based weaning programme; downward step feeding starts at day 21 before calves are weaned at 56 days of age.
Along with developing their own calf rearing unit, the Halton’s have been transitioning their 530 head herd to ProCROSS, a three-way composite breed of Swedish Red, Montbéliarde and Holstein.
Mr Halton says: “When we started the transition, people would tell me we would lose the value of the cows. But what you sell them for is not relevant. We are looking at the big picture in terms of production.
“Because of the cross, we get the genetic benefits of heterosis, which is the uplift of positive traits passed down to progeny.”
According to Mr Halton while they are milking at 9,500 litres a year, the big benefit is the increase in fertility and heifers reaching average calving age at 23 months.
He says: “In 2010, our pregnancy rate was at 22 per cent. And today we are at 30 per cent,” The breed more than pays for itself with more calves on the ground. The increase in fertility alone is worth £44,000 a year. No one see’s that money – we are not getting a cheque for it. But it is also not leaving the farm.”
While their breeding programme gives calves the genetic opportunity to go on and perform well, both Mr and Mrs Halton say this would not be possible without proper calf management in the rearing stage.
High ceilings, wide passage ways and daily cleaned sand beds are just one of the components to the operation’s herd health programme.
Calves, which are housed in a dry, well ventilated building, are given clean straw beds in small batch pens that are disinfected between use. At 7-10 days of age, an intranasal is administered to help protect against respiratory disease. They are also later vaccinated against BVD, leptospirosis, IBR and Salmonella.
“We also pull groups of calves at random to test their immunoglobulin levels to make sure they are receiving adequate passive transfer from colostrum,” says Mrs Halton.