IN A BID to meet the need to off-load youngstock commitments within the county”s expanding dairy herds, a contract heifer rearing business has replaced milkers on Julie and Martin Gaitskell”s Cumbria farm.

“The farm labour market is in turmoil and I can”t see it improving,” says Mr Gaitskell. “It”s the main reason we decided to sell our 140 cows almost overnight and it”s the labour element of running a dairy unit that”s making more milk producers consider sending heifers away for rearing.”

This shortage of skilled staff, plus the trend for expansion and more detailed cost analysis under way on many farms, is stacking up the advantages for having heifers contract reared.

“There are plenty of 400 and 500 cow herds around here, but there”s a high price to pay if youngstock rearing standards slip. Falling back on target growth rates and failing to get heifers to hold to service will impact on herd profits.”

The Gaitskells aim to handle 150 head of reared cattle at Boustead Hill, Burgh-by-Sands, Carlisle. Ideally, they would like to take heifers from a small number of clients and rear them from weaning to pre-calving.

 “We”ve always maintained high standards of stock management and that will continue to underpin the contract heifer rearing business. It”s going to be something that more producers will consider if cow numbers have to be increased and labour is short. But the rearing package that”s offered has to provide the highest calibre of management.

 “There”s no shortage of producers who”ve had bad experiences of sending heifers away to be reared and that has made them wary. But I”m convinced that specialist heifer rearers, offering very high standards of management for youngstock with high-production potential, will become an established part of the dairy sector.

“To do the job right the rearer needs the animal on the farm from an early age. It”s very difficult trying to turn poorly reared stirks into good quality calving heifers,” explains Mr Gaitskell.

The business, which has been set up with advice from Promar, has been charging 5.50/head a week, including concentrates, for the first batch of 15-month-old heifers which will stay until pre-calving.

 Basic vet and med costs are covered within the 5.50 charge. Rates for calves taken from 10-12 weeks until pre-calving will be 7/head a week.

“Ideally, we”d like to rear for just a couple of clients. That”s better for us in terms of animal health and better for the clients, as they can be assured stock is batch-reared. With a bigger throughput from different herds, disease risks would be increased,” says Mr Gaitskell.

All clients will have to allow Mr Gaitskell to discuss the health status of their herd with their vet. “It”s for everyone”s advantage. I need to have a full health profile of the herd that”s bringing youngstock here.”

 All cattle will be reared to meet a minimum weight for age target and clients will have to agree to have stock vaccinated against lungworm and leptospirosis.

 “And I would like to see owners on a regular basis. To really make this work for both parties it”s important to work with closely with clients.”

jh@jeremyhuntassociates.com