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Lancashire farm tackling cross-suckling in calves

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.

Nathan farms in Longridge, Lancashire with his father Michael and brother Joe, milking 155 cows.
Nathan farms in Longridge, Lancashire with his father Michael and brother Joe, milking 155 cows.

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.

Problem solving

Problem solving

“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.

Calf shed design key for welfare

Calf shed design key for welfare
The Forshaws visited several different housing designs before building their shed.

Measuring 18.2 metres wide by 27.43m long (60ft by 90ft), the shed has 11 pens at 4.57m wide by 6.40m long (15ft by 21ft) and an area for powder, pellets, mixing equipment, a sink and hot water.

Fresh air is drawn in through a 25cm (10in) gap at mid-wall height and escapes through an open ridge in the roof.

One side of the shed is often subjected to cold winds, so a rack of straw is suspended over some pens to keep the newest calves warm.

The 11 large pens are separated by concrete walls, rather than gates, to stop any transfer of moisture during steam cleaning and prevent cross-contamination.

The individual calf pens, sourced from Dumfries-based Solway Recycling and costing £95 each, are 100 per cent recycled and made from baler wrap and silage sheet.

Nathan says: “I saw the pens at shows and they looked to be warmer and easier to move and wash than metal ones.”


Pens are washed and disinfected between every calf and left out in the sun for as long as possible in an extra bid to totally eradicate bugs.

“The only thing I do not like about them is the hole in the sides and back. These have to be there for welfare reasons, but are placed at a height where the calf can easily muck through them.”

Nathan’s calf buckets continue along the recycling theme and are reused from the yoghurt plant. New ones are used for every calf to stop cross-contamination.



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.

Little Town Farm

  • Milking 155 cows, with a lactational average of 9,000kg/cow, calving all-year
  • The best half of the herd is AI’d with sexed semen. Any which do not hold, plus the other half of the herd and all bulling heifers, are AI’d with the Aberdeen-Angus
  • All heifer calves are retained and about 15 in-calf Dutch heifers are bought-in per year for about £1,350 per head
  • All Angus cross bull and heifer calves are kept for rearing, with up to seven or eight young Angus calves bought per week (85-90 per year) from neighbouring farms
  • The farm shop takes about one Angus per week (about 55 per year), with the rest sold at Lancaster auction for about £1,200 each, at 26 months old

Cross suckling tips

Cross-sucking is most often seen in the 10-15 minutes after milk feeding of pre-weaned calves, says Sam Leadley, calf management specialist with Attica Veterinary Associates, New York.

He says: “Bacteria from mastitic milk can live in a calf’s tonsils and other mouth tissues for up to two weeks post-weaning.

If calves cross-suckle in this period, contagious bacteria can be introduced into the juvenile udder and the heifer may freshen with mastitis.”

Mr Leadley advises to house calves individually, use headlocks at feeding stations and keep calves restrained for 10-15 minutes after feeding.

Provide a teat which calves can suck on and watch for repetitive behaviour to identify any calves exhibiting cross-suckling behaviour.
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