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Dairy special: Calf rearing gains from new purpose-built facility

A purpose-built calf rearing shed has meant Harry Roper and his team are able to hit the target daily liveweight gains needed to calve heifers down at 24 months of age.


Katie Jones reports...

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For dairy farmer Harry Roper, a new calf rearing shed at his family’s Lime House Farm, Thornley, near Preston, has meant calf rearing has become much more efficient, both in terms of labour and also the results they are seeing.


The building of the 44-metre by 21m (145ft x 70ft) shed was completed in February this year. Before this calves were reared in three or four different places around the farm.


The Roper family has been at Lime House Farm since the early 1970s and now 27-year-old Harry, who lives at the farm with his girlfriend, Charlotte, is the third generation to farm there. He explains the herd has been going through a period of expansion, with cow numbers currently standing at 240.


Mr Roper, who farms in partnership with his parents, Derek and Gillian, says the increasing number of calves coming through was putting a strain on infrastructure.


“It was a classic case of putting the calves wherever there was space.


“But this was causing some health issues and it was taking too long to feed, bed and muck out.”


The new shed has been designed so that a large numbers of calves can go through it, without the need for extra labour.

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“Ultimately, we want good, strong heifer replacements so we need to maximise daily liveweight gains in order to artificially inseminate our heifers at 15 months. We were also keen to try and reduce the farm’s carbon footprint and the new calf shed has contributed to this reduction.”


Calf shed


After calving, the calves are usually left to suckle their dams for the first few hours and are moved into the calf shed within 12 hours where possible. They are fed with 2.5 litres of colostrum at birth and then another 2.5 litres within 10-12 hours. All colostrum is tested so that only good quality is fed.


Once in the shed the calves go first into hutches, where they will stay for two or three days, or until they are confident drinkers and can compete with other calves.


Mr Roper says: “The calves generate their own heat in the hutches, but still have enough fresh air coming through.”


The hutches have been positioned so they are under-cover, with a concrete panelled wall at the rear to protect the calves from draughts.


“We have always had hutches but before we built this shed, they were outside which worked well, however the area outside the hutch would become wet.


“There is a slight fall to the concrete outside the hutches now, so they are easy to keep clean and dry.”


The hutches are deep-straw bedded and the farm vet Roland Millar, of Lambert, Leonard and May, says the aim is for a nesting score of three.

Mr Millar says: “The straw needs to be bedded deeply, so their feet are covered when lying down. Not only is this important for comfort, but it can also have an impact on health in cold weather conditions.”


In the hutches the calves are bottle fed to begin with before moving onto bucket feeding. From here they move into one of the shed’s five calf igloos. Each igloo houses between 12 and 15 calves.


Andrew Kippax, the farm’s herdsman, is largely responsible for the calf rearing and says the igloos allow the calves to generate their own heat for warmth while still allowing a good flow of fresh air.


He says this means they fared well even when temperatures dropped during the ‘Beast from the East’ cold snap earlier in the year.


Mr Kippax says: “The area at the front of the igloo is cleaned out and fresh bedding put down inside the igloo three times a week.


“There is a drain underneath the igloos and at the front of the pens to make sure the area remains dry. They are cleaned out completely when the calves move out of the hutches when they are weaned at about 60 days of age.”


Clean straw


Calves have access to clean straw and haylage for fodder, and water from day one. Once in the shed they are fed four litres of milk twice-aday, and this is stepped up to three litres per feed by the time they are three weeks old. They also have access to a concentrate alfalfa calf nut.

Milk replacer is currently fed at a rate of 150g/litre but the team is looking to move to an accelerated feeding programme to maximise growth potential in the vital first few months of life so may up the ratio.


From six weeks of age the amount of milk being fed starts to reduce along with the alfalfa concentrate and a heifer rearing nut is gradually introduced. The changes in feeding take place gradually so weaning does not come as too much of a shock to the calves.


From the igloos the calves are moved across the shed into pens of 15 where they a fed haylage with a heifer vitamin and mineral mix.


The calves also receive about 2kg of heifer rearing nuts, which is put down manually on top of the haylage at the feed fence.


Mr Roper says this is so they can see the calves getting up to feed, allowing them to spot any problems.


“We are cowmen first and foremost and like to see our calves and get to know them. If one is not right, we can tell right away.”


The haylage feed is put out two or three times a week, but is regularly pushed up to ensure the calves always have feed in front of them.


Shielded, tip-over water troughs are positioned near the front of the pens. This means the calves are drinking away from the bedded area, reducing the amount of urinating on the beds, but there is also enough room around the water drinkers so calves can stand to drink while others are standing at the feed fence.


Batch moves


The front of these pens are scraped out three times a week and then completely mucked out when one batch moves out into the cubicles at about six months of age.


The shed itself has an earth bank behind it to give some protection to the open side which accommodates the calf igloos.


With the calves not generating their own ‘stack effect’, the shed’s ventilation relies on good natural air flow. Initially the shed had an open ridge, but as this did not work it now has a ventilated ridge.


There is a dedicated area for milk preparation, which Mr Millar says is vital to the success of calf rearing facilities.


He adds: “It is important to have a clean, dry area for feed preparation and so often this is a huge area of improvement for farmers.”


In this area there is a temperature- controlled tap, so milk replacer is mixed to the same temperature each time, along with a washer and dryer for calf jackets. Jackets are put on calves in the igloos when necessary.


Mr Millar says: “As part of our routine calf visits we are looking at data that is collected and recorded on whiteboards in the wash area. The more information we have the better, so we are aiming to have a full history for every calf.”


Calves are weighed within their first 24 hours and then every six to eight weeks, to ensure they are achieving the target daily liveweight gain of 0.8kg. Looking ahead, Mr Roper says the long-term plan would be to extend the shed further and there are also plans in place to make improvements to the milking parlour.

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