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BREEDING AND CALVES SPECIAL: State of the art maternity unit boosts calf health

Dairy farmer Philip Halhead anticipates his investment in new calf housing will have a lifetime of health benefits for his herd replacements and help to increase their longevity. Hannah Noble reports.

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Philip Halhead (left) and Gavin Hill (right).
Philip Halhead (left) and Gavin Hill (right).
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State-of-the-art maternity unit boosts calf health

Take a peek inside Norbreck's state-of-the-art new maternity unit

For Philip Halhead the impact of a new calf building on animal health was instant. He says that in the first six months of rearing calves in the new building, which is based on the University of Wisconsin’s Dairyland Initiative calf housing design, antibiotic use and vet spend was cut by almost 50 per cent.

 

Mr Halhead, who farms at Norbreck Farm in Cockerham, near Lancaster, says the investment in the new facility was partly driven by the embryo work which is carried out on-farm and the value of these resultant calves.

 

He adds the herd owns several animals in the USA which are regularly flushed, the embryos are shipped to the UK and implanted into cows and heifers within the Norbreck herd.

 

Norbreck Farm is home to the 290-strong Norbreck herd of pedigree Holsteins which is run alongside a herd of pedigree Aberdeen-Angus and British Blue cattle.

 

Beef genetics

 

As well as running the farm, Mr Halhead is the owner of Norbreck Genetics which has been running for more than 25 years and specialises in providing beef genetics for the dairy farmer.

 

He says: “We breed bulls and buy-in bulls from other breeders which are suitable for use on the dairy herd. Our business supports Semex in the UK and we are now even putting bulls into stud in Hungary to help us reach a global marketplace.”

 

Mr Halhead says he realised the farm’s old calf housing was not fit for purpose. He says: “Calves were previously housed in a shed which was meant for straw and machinery and not purpose-built for calves. It was adapted, which is what a lot of dairy farmers seem to do.

 

“For most of the year it was okay, but there were months over winter when our calf health could be improved.”

 

The old system was very labour intensive, says Mr Halhead, whereas the aim of the new system is to make it much easier to manage the health and hygiene of the calves.

 

The new Norbreck maternity unit welcomed its first residents in December 2019 and Mr Halhead says it is based on the University of Wisconsin’s Dairyland Initiative, which aims to design welfare-friendly housing for cattle to optimise health, well-being and productivity.

 

Mr Halhead says: “The design of the shed is all about air flow and management of ventilation, keeping the number of air changes per hour correct to ensure the air is always moving but without causing draughts for the calves.”

 

The sides of the shed are fully open apart from a 61cm (2ft) high wall, but are equipped with Galebreaker curtains which are operated by a weather station which monitors wind speed, rainfall and temperature and automatically adjusts the curtains depending on the conditions outside the shed. The curtains are automatically closed when the temperature dips below 11degC.

The sides of the shed are fully open apart from a 61cm (2ft) high wall.
The sides of the shed are fully open apart from a 61cm (2ft) high wall.

As well as this there is also a positive pressure air tube system set up in the shed which runs constantly and provides four changes of internal air per hour.

 

Mr Halhead says they decided to install a fabric ventilation tube, which unzips and can be taken down to wash at least every 12 months, to further minimise the calves’ exposure to disease.

 

The calf pens are made by Agri-Plastics and were shipped over from the USA. Mr Halhead says they were the pens of choice due to their easy to clean and construct design. The pens also have extra ventilation in the back to prevent the build-up of stale air and they can be opened or closed depending on the weather.

 

In summer the calves are bedded on shavings and in winter on straw to allow nesting behaviour.

 

Gavin Hill, who manages the rearing of the calves and is also involved with the nutrition of the dairy cows, says the shavings mean there is a much lower fly burden in the summer months.

 

Bedding

 

He adds: “The level of wetness and ammonia under the bedding of the pens with straw is also noticeable compared to the sawdust. The sawdust soaks up the wetness without making the bed wet.”

 

Part of the University of Wisconsin design includes close attention to drainage within the shed. Each side of the shed slopes very slightly towards drainage channels running down the middle of the building. The central concrete section is also slightly domed to allow run-off at both sides into the two drainage channels.

 

Mr Halhead says it is noticeable that there is never any standing water in the building and this helps to minimise humidity.

 

He adds: “Keeping the humidity at the right level is critical, the lack of humidity is the secret to keeping viruses down.”

 

The unit is also equipped with a self-contained calf kitchen where Mr Hill prepares all the milk and washes and disinfects the teats and buckets after each feed. Mr Halhead says this has helped with the ease of management for the staff and means protocols are easy to follow and manage precisely.

 

Mr Hill adds: “The buckets are rinsed then washed in disinfectant, rinsed again and left to dry on the drying racks. I always feed the youngest calves first and work my way up to the oldest to help minimise the risk of transmitting any infection.”

In summer, calves are bedded on shavings and in winter on straw to allow nesting behaviour.
In summer, calves are bedded on shavings and in winter on straw to allow nesting behaviour.

They also use a milk taxi to mix and heat the milk to the correct temperature and dispense the right volume for each calf.

 

In line with requirements from a Tesco contract via Arla, the calves are housed in pairs which Mr Halhead says works well in the new building and he is in favour of the welfare benefits it provides for them.

 

Because of this, they find it best to feed milk in teat buckets which he says satisfies the calves’ innate suck reflex and addresses the problem of group housing in terms of cross-suckling.

 

Mr Hill says: “The calves are taken from their mothers soon after birth and receive colostrum for their first four feeds. They then move on to milk replacer starting at 2.6 litres and gradually working up to four litres fed twice daily.”

 

Mr Hill uses colostro balls to test the quality of the colostrum and if the quality is not good enough the calves will receive powdered colostrum.

 

However, colostrum quality throughout the herd is generally good, which Mr Halhead puts down to the quality of the dry cow ration.

 

Weaning

 

Milk is gradually reduced at about seven weeks old and the calves are weaned at about eight weeks old, when Mr Hill is confident they are clearing their concentrate feed and eating plenty of straw.

 

The average weaning weight is 100kg, with average daily liveweight gain from birth to weaning of about 1kg/day.

A slightly domed central section offers good drainage.
A slightly domed central section offers good drainage.

Once weaned, the calves are moved to another shed where they learn to lie in cubicles before going away to contract rearers Anne and Percy Rossall, at Over Wyresdale, near Lancaster, at five months old or about 200kg.

 

About 150 heifers reside with the Rossalls who work with Mr Halhead to flush some of the top genomic heifers and implant embryos into the lower genetic merit heifers which act as recipients. Currently they are flushing one of the top 20 £PLI heifers in the UK, Norbreck Crosby Maria.

 

Mr Halhead says: “We are running at about 59 per cent conception rate with embryos into our maiden heifers, fresh and frozen embryos, which we are pleased with.

 

“We also do quite a bit of work with IVF and move some of our heifers at seven to eight months old to John Metcalf, at Crossfell Holsteins, Penrith. Here we harvest oocytes at a young age to get that generational turnover faster.”

 

Mr Halhead says the new calf housing has had a positive impact on calf health.

 

“We worked with Lambert, Leonard and May’s vet techs who did a trial scanning the calves’ lungs, and all the calves weaned out of the new building were coming out with a top score for lung health.

 

“The performance and health of the calves coming out of the new accommodation has led to a recent increase in demand from private buyers asking to buy the calves.

 

“We anticipate when we get to a 12-month costing and analysis we will probably be looking at a 60-70 per cent reduction in vet costs and antibiotic use.”

Farm facts

  • The new calf shed is 27m (90 feet) by 12.2m (40ft) and is large enough to house 65 calves
  • Calves are BVD tag and tested at birth
  • Cows are vaccinated for IBR and rotavirus and monitored for Johne’s disease and leptospirosis
  • Improved growth rates in the new shed means it is expected heifers will be big enough to serve at just more than 12 months old going forwards
  • The future plan is to buy more animals in the USA and ship embryos over to the UK to gain access to the newest genetics
  • Mr Halhead currently has a bull calf with a £PLI of £797 which will go to stud in the UK soon
  • Sexed semen is used on the top genomic females in the herd, others are implanted with embryos or put to beef bulls from the Norbreck stud
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