Calves from the 320-head British Friesian herd at Thornington Farm continue as the farm’s own heifer replacements, go for dairy beef or to other suckler herds.
Every calf has a value, according to Tom Neill, of R. Neill and Sons, a family-run business where attention to detail is paramount.
The Neill family’s approach integrates across the whole dairy enterprise, rearing British Friesian calves for dairy replacements, Friesian and terminal cross-bred male calves for beef, as well as a combination of Limousin and Hereford female calves for suckler cows.
Tom says: “We like to keep the same procedures across all aspects of our calf-rearing. If the system works, do not change it.
“All female and male calves are treated exactly the same way and results speak for themselves. Newborn calves receive their mother’s colostrum and this helps provide increased levels of immunity and all navels are routinely dipped with iodine.”
Calves go into individual calf pens for seven to 10 days before moving into large airy hutches, housing five calves at a time.
This helps social interaction among calves and better group mentality. Calves are bedded on straw and receive six litres of milk replacer per day.
Tom says: “Consumers and activists are concerned about animal health and welfare issues and the use of antibiotic treatments in animal husbandry. We feed OmniSmart milk replacer and this has helped reduce our antibiotic use.
“Calves receive free access to clean water and straw and are introduced to Mole Valley Farmers Calf Starter.
This product also contains OmniGen and the calves receive this ration through to weaning at 65 days.
“We gradually increase milk replacer to seven litres per day over rearing, but during the final week before weaning, this is reduced to three litres once-a-day.”
Calves are all fed using an automated milk shuttle and receive the exact amount of milk replacer at each feed.
Besides being a labour-saving device, the milk shuttle maintains the same temperature throughout the feeding process.
Maintaining consistency of diet is important, especially at this early stage of a calf’s development, says Tom.
Calves begin a transition period after 65 days leading up to about day 100. Calf Starter pellets and Thornington’s own home-grown mix is fed over this period and, at day 100, calves receive only home-mix.
The blend includes urea-based treatment designed to lift barley pH levels and includes mineral supplements.
Thornington grows 900 acres of barley and wheat and the urea-based treatment is administered straight after harvesting.
The administered barley does not need to be dried down from 18% moisture directly off the field. Calves receive the home-grown mix on an ad-lib basis, as well as access to fresh, clean, dry straw. Calves are then grouped in batches of 25 calves in large straw-bedded pens.
Depending on the time of year, all calves go out to grass paddocks and receive the home-mix supplement at a rate of 2kg/head/day.
During winter, the six-month-old calves are housed and receive a TMR silage ration, including the home-mix and distiller’s dark grains.
All fattening steers are housed at the family’s neighbouring Downham Farm and fed a TMR along a central feed passage.
As steers continue to grow, groups are moved up into the next section of the widespan building and have access to TMR and ad-lib mix through a feed hopper.
From here, steers are taken through to finishing weights of 650kg liveweight (about 330kg-340kg deadweight) at 22 months of age.
Limousin cross Friesian steers finish out slightly higher at 350kg deadweight, with most animals achieving R grades.
Steers are sent to Linden Foods abattoir at Newcastle and usually average £1,050 for British Friesians and up to £1,200 for Limousin cross Friesians.
In 2018, Tom installed a state-of-the-art Clipex cattle weighing system, which comprises a curved cattle race and extensive concrete yarding at a cost of £40,000.
The fully automated system works on air compression with animals weighed every two weeks to monitor growth rates.
Health and safety of staff was an important consideration in purchasing the weighing system, as well as animal welfare and reducing stress on animals and staff alike.
Limousin cross Friesian heifer calves are reared in the exact same way as other groups. When cross-breds achieve breeding age, heifers are sold to Tom’s older brother Robert, who farms at Upper Nisbet, near Jedburgh.
Cross-bred heifers make ideal suckler replacements, having excellent shape and an abundance of milk for their newborn calves.
Tom and Robert continue to work hand-in-hand and benefit from being in the same Premium Animal Health Scheme run by Scotland’s Rural College.
Having consistency between both units has proven itself time after time, despite one farm being in England and the other farm over the border in Scotland.
The large-span youngstock complex at Downham Farm is also used by Tom’s younger brother David to lamb Thornington’s 1,800 ewes and, once lambing finishes in March, the six-month-old heifer replacements have access to the building.
Heifers are fed big bale silage and home-mix for the next two to three months before gaining access to grass paddocks in spring.