Contract calf rearing is proving a valuable activity for Paul and Heidi Davies, Builth Wells, Powys.
Barry Alston reports...
Calf rearing can be a rewarding extra on-farm activity – as long as the basic routine is spot on.
And, say Paul and Heidi Davies, there are some essential requirements to this, including: strict hygiene control, an accurate feeding regime, a stress-free environment, flow-through ventilation, regular observation, attention to detail at all times, vigilance and for good measure, a thermometer.
Mr and Mrs Davies have put all of these necessities into practice and, having gone from rearing just a handful of calves from their own suckler cows 12 months ago, now have the confidence to handle their first all-in, all-out batch of 100 calves.
Later this year, given the encouragement of the financial returns, they are aiming to be rearing all year round groups of 200 calves at a time.
Taking on the family-owned 40-hectare (100-acre) Llatho Farm, Cregrina, Builth Wells, Powys, three years ago, the initial enterprises were a small number of beef cattle producing stores and 350-ewes, alongside off-farm working. Mr Davies has a building and carpentry business while Mrs Davies works for the local authority.
Mr Davies explains: “Given the farm’s isolated location we were looking for a diversification activity both of us could be involved with, as well as helping to improve our cattle and sheep enterprises. But the main obstacle was the cost factor.
“We wanted to utilise the assets we already had on-farm, including possibly using the lambing shed to rear calves during the months it was not needed.
“Quite by chance, we saw an advert looking for potential calf rearers and, having had some limited experience with our home-bred calves, decided to look into contract rearing. It was a case of nothing ventured, nothing gained.
“Buitelaar came along, inspected our buildings and explained the protocol of what was involved.
“Basically they supply the feed and the calves weighing about 50kg on arrival, then take the calves back once they meet the average target weight specification of 140kg.
“The only outlay we had was the £350 needed to improve ventilation in our existing buildings.
“Anthea Daw, the company’s regional calf specialist, talked us through the main essentials for successful calf rearing and her input has been invaluable,” says Mr Davies.
The first batch of 50 calves arrived in August last year. Having been grouped according to weight and size, they were delivered to the farm and fed a 25kg bag of milk powder each over a five-week period.
Mr Davies says: “They left us after 10 weeks destined for finishing units, having achieved an average daily liveweight gain of 1.02kg, compared to the specification minimum of 0.7kg at 12 weeks. Our second batch of 50 calves came in November and left with an average 1.12kg daily liveweight gain, proving to us we could confidently handle 100 for our third batch. They arrived on May 8.”
Mr Davies says with the first batch of calves, antibiotic use was perhaps a little higher than intended but subsequent alterations to the sheds have significantly reduced the need.
He says: “We have also invested in calf coats, which have improved the health factor.”
In addition to the milk replacer, calves receive concentrates, along with ad-lib straw and they are straw bedded until weaning. Once weaned, fern is added to the bedding to reduce the cost.
Mr Davies says: “What we have learned above all is there are no shortcuts to success. Payments are based on the pre-determined level of weight gain, so a stress-free environment is essential at all times.
“Paramount, too, is calf health and being aware of the signs something may not be quite right. Just as with newborn babies, problems can become serious in next to no time.”
He says regular monitoring and using a thermometer to check temperatures is a good way of spotting any problems and providing early treatment.
In order to prevent any cross-contamination when moving between the two groups of 50 calves, a disinfection procedure is carried out.
Mr Davies adds: “There is a thorough clean out and pressure wash down between batches, followed by total disinfection. We even spread lime around the buildings.
“Attention to detail is also critical because, at the end of the day, your profit level is of your own making.”
Mr Davies adds it is possible to reject any calves on arrival at the farm but, given they have already had very strict assessments before leaving the producer farm and again before leaving the collection centre, that is not something they have experienced.
The type of calves taken is fairly flexible, depending on availability at the time of placement.
But Mr and Mrs Davies have mostly opted to go for black and white bull calves.
“By contract rearing, we have not had to make a significant financial outlay to get started and there is a quick turnaround with a regular cashflow.
“For us to buy a batch of 100 calves independently would cost a lot of money and finding ones that are evenly matched on age, weight and condition would be virtually impossible. At no stage do we own the calves. In effect, we manage them and the financial return is based around how well we do that.
“We do, however, have to stand any losses, which makes it critical that the job is done to the best of our abilities.
“As to the future, we will be aiming for intakes of 200 calves with an all-in all-out system and hope to reach that level by gradually increasing the numbers of each batch.
“In no way would we want to compromise calf health and welfare by increasing volumes too rapidly while still learning just what our sheds are capable of handling and what room and ventilation the calves need to hit peak performance.
“When this has been achieved, measures to further increase batch numbers could include putting up a purpose-built calf rearing shed or possibly removing the need for a sheep shed by changing breeds and switching to outdoor lambing.”