Contract rearing finds its feet

Quitting milk production leaves many farmers wondering what to do next.

But for Yorkshire-based Stuart Heddle the gap was quickly filled with a move into contract heifer rearing.

Heifers from three separate farms soon filled the buildings at Hollymoor Farm, Cockfield, when he went out of milk in 2002.

With hindsight, he feels he has made the right decision, even though his new enterprise carries its own risks.

With retirement approaching and no successor to take over the farm, Mr Heddle and his wife, Joyce, had been thinking about selling their 80-cow dairy herd for some time when foot-and-mouth disease brought the decision forward.

“We escaped the F&M cull, but decided to sell up in the wake of price rises fuelled by farmers wanting to re-stock.

I have always been enthusiastic about cattle and rearing heifers has allowed me to continue my interest.”

Young heifers start off on loose-housing, with straw provided by the small cereal acreage, then move to cubicles.

“One client sends 40 heifers over their second winter for the express purpose of cubicle training, so he can concentrate on managing the milking herd,” explains Mr Heddle.

“A second client has expanded from 100 cows to 160.

He sends heifers from 3-6 months old until just before calving, to make more room for milkers.

“My third regular client is rather different.

She has 25 Limousin cross suckler heifers, which come in as weaned calves and stay until they are ready for either finishing or breeding.”

Flexibility is key to keeping clients happy, he says.

“It’s whatever the customer wants – we have no formal contracts.

The monthly charge and terms and conditions are set by mutual agreement, loosely based on an NFU standard rearing contract.

Some clients ask me to footbath and arrange AI, while others prefer more practical involvement.

All clients pay their own vet bills.”

Forage production standards must be maintained when switching to heifer rearing, adds Mr Heddle.

“Target growth rates are pre-agreed, so it is in my interest to produce the best quality forage possible, to save on concentrate costs.”

“Silage is the mainstay, although younger cattle receive some bought-in feed.

I have kept my mixer wagon, so there is also the option of feeding a total mixed ration.”

Having always sent his own dairy heifers away for rearing, Mr Heddle is convinced it is the best system.

“Milk production is demanding and with the best will in the world, heifers can get side-lined. I believe sending them to someone who can focus on their needs is a better option, even in cases where there may be no cost benefit on paper.

“For me, the big test will come if I lose one of my clients.

There is no guarantee I will find heifers from elsewhere.

This is not a high profit enterprise, but at this stage I feel quality of life is more important.”

Promar International consultant Alan Hutchinson warns anyone considering dairy heifer rearing to identify at least one potential client before taking the idea any further.

“At the moment there are more people looking for heifers to rear than dairy farmers wishing to send their heifers away,” says Mr Hutchinson.

“The market could easily become saturated, so it is wise to find prospective customers first and then start thinking about how to draw up agreements or contracts.”

Current charges for heifer rearing with all services included average about 1/head/day.

However defining exactly what is being offered and what is expected is important, he points out.

“Ideally, rearing contracts should be drawn up legally.

At the least, a written agreement detailing all arrangements for AI, vet bills and growth rate targets should be signed by both parties.”

When taking animals from more than one farm, all cattle should be fully vaccinated to minimise disease risk.

And other precautions may be needed in TB hotspots, he advises.

“Ideally, your client will want you to take only animals from his herd, but in most cases that is impractical.

With usually only one person looking after the stock, it is not really possible to make absolutely sure disease can’t be transmitted.

That is why blanket vaccination is so important for all heifers,” says Mr Hutchinson.

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