Calf stocking rates at Lackham College results in fewer health problems

Decreasing calf stocking rates at Lackham College has resulted in fewer health problems, less competition for food and a reduction in feed costs.

Halving calf stocking density can not only reduce pneumonia cases and increase daily liveweight gain, but can cut the rearing period by two weeks, says Blade Farming managing director, Richard Phelps.

Improving airspace by reducing stocking density is key to maximising herd health, he adds. “Working alongside DEFRA on herd health planning has allowed us to look at preventative measures to improve calf-rearing performance, such as stocking density.

“Lackham College calf enterprise, which is also a Blade unit, initially used industry standards for stocking density, but then reduced densities to see how calf health improved.

“Initially, a total of 200 calves were housed in the old converted barley beef unit with 10 calves to a 15ft x 15ft pen from birth to 12-14 weeks.” This was then reduced to five calves a pen, he adds.

Suckeled cow and calf

Lackham farm manager, Philip Steans, who conducted trials to establish optimum stocking levels says there is a direct correlation between stocking rate and calf disease resistance.

Halving stocking density saw 100% improvement, says Mr Steans. “Although on paper revenue hashalved due to reduction of animals going through the system, in practice this isn’t true. Savings have been made on health, labour and more rapid turnover, with two weeks knocked off the rearing period.

“When 10 calves were housed a pen we were getting about 85 pneumonia cases in a 12-week period. With five calves a pen, pneumonia cases in the most recent batch was 34 in the same batch. Daily liveweight gain has increased from 0.74/kg a day to 0.9/kg a day and death rate has reduced from 21 to just six. Health costs have now reduced from £14 to £8 a calf.

Feed and vet costs have been cut and due to increased efficiency less labour input is required. Rearing cost a calf is £116 and although this has not directly changed, less vet costs and feed costs means the overall cost will be lower.

“Higher stocking densities saw calves competing for food, causing stress and contributing to health problems. Now there is less competition and fewer calves a pen, animals don’t run out of food as frequently and so we see less colic. Having fewer calves to treat makes the stockman’s job a lot easier.

“We are now in the process of finding an optimum balance between growth rate and loss of revenue. Seven calves a pen is likely to be the optimum.

“As well as stocking density, it is important to consider appropriate ventilation and a dry lying area. In winter pens are supplemented with extra straw helping calves maintain body temperature. Good hygiene is vital and by having an all-in, all-out system digestive and respiratory diseases are kept to a minimum.

“Inevitably there is temptation to maximise number of calves a pen, but this can lead to lost production and mortalities, which will substantially increase costs overall.”