Care is key for calf rearing success

Calf rearing might seem like a simple job, but quality contract-reared calves demand high levels of management and stockmanship

Delivering consistent daily liveweight gains is central to ensuring a sufficient throughput of calves for contract rearers Joff and Emma Roberts of Uphampton Farm, Herefordshire.

Having begun calf rearing in 1999 with just 16 calves in an existing farm building, the couple are now rearing 960 calves a year in six batches. As workloads grew, Mrs Roberts was finding it difficult to juggle the challenges of calf rearing and an expanding family. After much deliberation, two options for the future were put forward: Either find additional paid labour to ease the workload or invest in new facilities, including a fully computerised milk feeding system.

In 2003, the couple took the advice of Gill Dickson, ruminant sales specialist for Wynnstay Feeds, and invested in their first calf feeding machine, a Holm and Laue unit, which was set up to feed 60 calves from two feeding stations. It soon became apparent the automated system was working well, with workloads vastly reduced and calf health and weight gain significantly improved.

Last year a new shed was erected, complete with two Holm and Laue calf feeders and 12 of the company’s igloos, providing housing for up to 160 calves. The igloos, which are arranged in two rows of six around the external edge of the steel-framed building, are constructed from fibre-glass-reinforced plastic and painted white to reflect sunlight and maintain a comfortable micro-climate all year round. Each unit is 4.4m in diameter with an overall height of 2.2m and a usable internal space of 15sq m – along with an adjoining straw pen within the shed there is enough space for about 15 calves.

“We chose the igloos after doing a lot of our own research,” Mrs Roberts explains. “We liked them because they are easy to keep clean and they provide a healthy environment for the calves. No matter what species you’re talking about, a happy animal is a healthy animal and that helps to keep disease outbreaks to a minimum.”

Calves come to the unit at about 55kg and are kept for 11-12 weeks, by which time they will have achieved a weight of 130-140kg. The two milk powder machines supply milk via eight feeding stations, according to a pre-set feed curve, and monitor the amount of milk each calf is taking. An alarm list flags up any animals that have not eaten. “That aids a more rapid response to any health issues and helps us to get calves back on track as soon as possible.”

Dairy Event 2009
To learn more about best practice in calf rearing and for a chance to see the latest in calf rearing technology and feedstuffs visit this year’s Dairy Event and Livestock Show, Stoneleigh, on 16 and 17 September 2009. The event organised by RABDF will cover all the latest technical information for ruminant species.

As calves arrive they are fed an initial ration of 2.4 litres of milk a day, increasing to 4.8 litres over a seven-day period. This ration then drops off when each calf has consumed 13-15kg of milk powder, at which point the weaning process begins and milk intake is reduced to zero. Calves are gradually weaned off milk powder over an eight-day period to stimulate dry food intake, Mrs Roberts explains. “The volume of milk taken in a single feed is automatically limited in order to maximise feed conversion rates. During the first few days, the maximum intake of feed is set at 0.6 litres, but this increases to 1.2 litres once the calves have reached the peak of the feed curve. “We actually feed more than the recommended amount of powder by using 155g/litres instead of the recommended 125g,” Mr Roberts explains. “We have found this improves performance and in colder weather we crank the formulation up further to maintain growth rates and limit nutritional stress.”

As well as a regulated supply of milk, calves are also fed concentrate pellets from a very young age. It is essential to develop the rumen as early as possible, advises Steve Brown, ruminant technical manager for Wynnstay. “At birth the rumen is only the size of a thumbnail. Milk powder will help the calf grow in the first few weeks, but rumen development must be stimulated using a grain-based concentrate to maintain growth rates post-weaning. Once weaned, calves are transferred to straw yard accommodation where they are fed on pellets until they reach a weight of 140kg.