Supplying milk to the farm’s yoghurt business and meat to their shop, the day-to-day management at Little Town Farm, Lancashire, poses a unique set of challenges when it comes to managing calves and preventing cross-suckling. Louise Hartley reports.
Rearing dairy and beef cross calves alongside each other, 22-year-old Nathan Forshaw had several things to consider when he started designing his new calf shed.
Working alongside his father Michael and brother Joe on the family farm in Longridge, Nathan is responsible for rearing about 30 home-bred Holstein heifers and 140-150 Aberdeen-Angus cross calves.
Before the new calf shed was built in September last year, calves were housed in hutches and teat-fed before being moved to old cubicles or empty buildings at weaning.
Nathan says: “A dedicated calf shed was needed, with good ventilation, hygiene facilities and, most importantly, the system had to prevent cross-sucking.
“About one-third of calves were cross-sucking at the time, brought on by rearing the dairy and beef calves together and teat feeding. As soon as calves had finished drinking milk, they turned to suck each other.
Nathan tried separating the dairy and Angus calves but did not have enough heifers being born to make similar aged batches of calves.
“We regularly changed teats to ensure they were always tough and hard, and also tried dipping navels and filling milk troughs with water after feeding. Cross-sucking reduced slightly as a result, but the problem was not completely solved.”
Since moving to the new shed, Nathan has switched from teat feeding to trough feeding and has seen a big reduction in cross-sucking.
“Everyone says teat feeding is better for the calf as it slows down drinking and allows more saliva production, but for our system trough feeding definitely reduces cross-sucking and calves are more content.”
Nathan still gets the odd case of cross-sucking and says it is important to watch calves during and after drinking.
“Any calves I catch cross-sucking are given a nose ring and observed closely, especially during the first couple of feeds – they often do not like putting their heads in the trough when they first have the ring on and need to learn to push the ring up.
The preparation area has a double sink, freezer and hot running water. A mixing tap, costing about £35, has been installed to ensure water for mixing powder comes out at 40degC, for feeding at 38degC.
“Having hot water in the shed makes it easier to wash the equipment. Every couple of days I disinfect the mobile milk mixer, bottles, tuber and equipment. There is also a foot dip at entrance.”
Nathan says freezing the best quality colostrum and finding the best way to defrost it is the next thing to think about.
“Defrosting colostrum is never easy, we currently use Aga trays but I am looking for something quicker.”
A whiteboard with a plan of the calf pens is pinned up in the shed. Any calves requiring treatment are detailed on the board, making it easy to locate calves which have been treated. Treatment protocols for scour, pneumonia, lack of appetite and gut ache are written down the middle of the board.
“If I am away for the weekend my grandma and brother can easily see which calves they need to keep an eye on and what to do if one is poorly,” adds Nathan.
The shed has now had a full year of use and, as with any new build, Nathan points out a few things he has altered and would like to change.
“To start with, I bedded the calves right to the front of the pen but straw was coming through the front gate and blocking the gulley, getting wet and causing stagnant water.
“We have installed wooden sleepers to hold the straw back and leave a concrete eating area. We may install a concrete lip in the future.
“The shed was built opposite the muck midden, meaning flies can be a problem in summer.”
Nathan says he is looking into lining the concrete walls with rubber to insulate pens and is also starting research for a new calving pen.