Calf colostrum management improves health

A diet of colostrum in the first five days of life gives calves the best possible start and a system developed at Picton Castle Farm, near Haverfordwest, has helped maximise intakes.

Just over 100 dairy calves from the spring-calving herd are reared annually, with each getting about 30 litres of colostrum in the first five days, according to producer Alan Wheatley.

The calves are born on a bark pad and then moved to a “pre-nursery” pen, where they are fed warm colostrum from a two-litre bottle fitted with a teat, says Mr Wheatley. “Tubing is the last resort, as it puts unnecessary stress on the calf. And the extra time we spend encouraging the calves to take their first drink is time we save further down the line,” he says.

Freshly-calved cows stay in a “colostrum mob” for five days. As well as securing adequate colostrum for the calves it means any health issues like mastitis can be dealt with before they join the herd.

Newborn calves are encouraged to drink at least two litres of colostrum before being moved to a second pen equipped with a self-feeding milk bin fitted with teats. This bin is filled with a colostrum and milk mix which the calves can access ad lib.

Block calving pattern

Shifting the organic herd to a block calving pattern made it possible to create a feeding system based around colostrum, says Mr Wheatley, who is confident it has improved general calf health. “We wouldn’t now expect to get calves with scours and we have seen a big difference in their thriftiness,” he says.

“Since we started a proper system of feeding colostrum the calves have never been healthier. First colostrum is a specialist product with lots of goodies in it, which we should all be costing at £2.50/litre.”

This figure, he says, was calculated by comparing the value of colostrum with the cost of immunising calves for rotavirus and the purchase cost of specialist replacement feed products.

The calves remain in the nursery pen at Picton Castle Farm for five days before being moved in groups of 10 to rearing pens at a nearby tenant farm, Rosen Park Farm, to which they have a contract dairy agreement. Here their diet includes yogurtised milk, created by mixing 25 litres of organic yogurt with 1500 litres of milk. The milk must be warm for the process to work.

The milk used in this process is pumped from the tank into a 1000-litre container and transported to Rosen Park, where it is transferred into a 2000-litre bulk tank.


“It’s all automated, so it is not necessary for anyone to go into the pen, which is good, as calves can get quite lively when they know their food is coming,” says Mr Wheatley.

Milk forms part of the calves’ diet for their first 12 weeks – or until they reach 100kg. Mr Wheatley calculates each calf gets 420 litres of milk over these 12 weeks – or 84 days. This includes 19,000 litres of colostrum and 40,000 litres of milk.

“We are taking milk out of the tank that is worth 26p/litre. We use about £6000 worth of milk to rear the calves, but it’s money well spent,” he says.

“The calves were previously fed once a day, but the same volume is now spread over two feeds because we were getting some scouring. It is easier for them to digest when they drink twice a day,” says Mr Wheatley.


After the calves are weaned they leave the farm to be reared outdoors by a contract rearer, on a unit a mile from the home farm. They stay here until April of the following year.

Calves are weighed twice after leaving the rearing pens. If after two months they haven’t achieved target weights and are not achieving a daily liveweight gain of 0.65kg they are removed from the main group and given an ad-lib diet of organic cake and grass. However, if they are under target weight, but achieving projected daily liveweight gains they will remain with the main group.

“From September the heifers in the main group were achieving daily liveweight gains of 0.75kg, but those we pulled out for specialist treatment were achieving 1.5kg, so they were catching up,” says Mr Wheatley.

“If a calf has had a good start, then it has a better chance of achieving targeted growth. Spending a bit of time and money getting it right from birth really does pay off.”

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