25 August 1995

Treat em like individuals

How do calf rearing systems affect performance? Jessica Buss and Jonathan Riley find that both batch and individual methods offer advantages

INDIVIDUAL attention is behind the top quality calves produced by Warwickshire farmer John Charles-Jones.

His 300ha (750-acre) Chapel Farm, Atherstone supports 140 milkers and 250ha (620 acres) of arable.

"We are mainly summer calving and buy in replacements because we do not have space to rear our own," says Mr Charles Jones. "It also means we can change calving pattern quickly if we need to."

All cows are put to a Belgian Blue, with a Charolais used as a sweeper. Average calf birth weights are 50kg to 55kg.

"Calves are a valuable by-product and marketed through farmer co-op Warwickshire Quality Calves. The individual pens and good stockmanship play a major role in producing calves of top quality," says Mr Charles-Jones. All calves are bucket fed with ad lib warmed surplus milk or milk replacer. Each calf is fed with the same bucket until it is sold, reducing risk of disease.

"We tried using a machine milk feeder but, surprisingly, calves drank less than they did with buckets. With buckets in individual pens we can tell immediately when a calf is not drinking as it should," he says.

To ensure calves take enough colostrum all buckets are fitted with teats to help the calf to adapt quickly to drinking away from its mother. Colostrum is offered for the first four days and calves then consume 15 to 20 litres of cows milk a day, supplemented with milk replacer when necessary. Throughout the calfs time at the farm every effort is made to reduce stress by ensuring it is as comfortable as possible.

"We warm the milk to 40C, getting it as close to its natural temperature as possible, and milk temperatures are kept the same between feeds."

Calves are housed in a cowshed in pens measuring 1.8m x 1.4m (6ft x 4.5ft) which make use of the original concrete partitions between milking stands. As soon as a calf is sold, metal pen fronts and pen walls are cleaned and disinfected.

"The shed is well ventilated and drained," he says. "We keep calves as cool as possible and avoid draughts at calf level. As a result we have had no incidences of pneumonia and have lost only two calves in the past six years.

"Because we have 500 acres of straw, all calves are well bedded, which keeps them healthier and makes mucking out easier."

Herdsman John Clark says: "Our attempts to reduce stress on the calf are kept up until they leave our care. Previously we took calves to market but we felt that this was too stressful for such young calves and it took half a day of our time.

"Calves are now collected from the farm by WQC which provides a grading list so we know what we will get for them before they are taken. More than 95% reach 65kg and make top grades at Q or Q+. We believe it is our system that is providing our customers with what they want," says Mr Clark.

Chapel Farm herdsman, John Clark is keen to reduce stress when rearing young calves.