DairyCo calf rearing meeting teaches new lessons

Even experienced dairy farmers can learn new ideas and be reminded of old ones, as two Cheshire producers discovered when they attended a DairyCo calf rearing meeting and found ways to improve their colostrum management.

Success may boil down to 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration, but sometimes it’s hard to find that initial motivation. However, following a DairyCo calf rearing meeting last autumn, Cheshire calf rearer Rosemary Hague was so inspired that she went home and revamped her management the very next day.

Mrs Hague began removing calves from dams for their first colostrum feed, changed her colostrum storage methods and cleaned up her buckets, then dropped hay from the diet in favour of straw and concentrates (starchy feeds promote rumen development).

“We are rearing heifers to sell as freshly-calved replacements, so I need a calf that has had the best start I can ever give it,” says Mrs Hague, of Bank Farm near Middlewich. “We have 31 heifers reared on the new regime. Calves look better – they are not pot bellied – livelier and intakes of concentrates have gone up.”

Despite rearing calves all her life, it was a DairyCo meeting featuring US calf and heifer rearing specialist Dr Sam Leadley that prompted a rethink on long-term practices. Mrs Hague’s policy of leaving calves on the dam for 24-36 hours wasn’t always as successful as she’d assumed. “Some robust calves manage to suckle, but you can’t always guarantee the big calves, or those from a rough calving; they can be a bit dopey. I realised after Dr Leadley’s talk that the first thing a newborn calf does is go to the wrong end of its mother and licks hair that’s not spotless. It doesn’t automatically find the teat.”

What Mrs Hague also learned was that a calf’s first intake should be of clean, quality colostrum containing essential antibodies. This gives it passive immunity to resist disease. If it has a “manure meal” first, the gut is colonised by undesirable bacteria from dung. Plus, that first colostrum must be drunk within six hours as the gut’s ability to absorb antibodies drops by one-third in this time.

“What Dr Leadley said made perfect common sense: to take the calf off its mother and feed it clean colostrum straight away. Not only did I know the amount it had had, but also that it was clean,” she adds.

Once calves have been licked clean, they are now removed and given three litres of fresh colostrum either by bottle, or tube. After 11pm, however, stored colostrum is used to avoid switching on the parlour. Before, this would simply sit in a bucket in the dairy until required: “Now it’s straight into the house in clean bottles that sit in chilled water to cool them before they go in the freezer. I use plastic drinks bottles, half filled and with the air squeezed out, because they are flatter for easy freezing and thawing.”

A milk bucket cleaning regime of “cold water and a swish” has been replaced by a thorough scrub using hot water and a brush. In fact, Mrs Hague admits to now being very particular about cleanliness of all buckets and troughs. She found another benefit of the meeting was the discussion among the audience afterwards. “This helped me find local ideas and the next day I went to the corn merchant and our vets for information on adding a coccidiostat to the calf feed. And I’m now alking to our vet about injecting pregnant heifers 6-8 weeks before calving to boost the antibody content of their colostrum and we are vaccinating calves against pneumonia.”


  • Colostrum stored in buckets in dairy
  • Calves kept on dam 24+ hours
  • Cold water wash
  • Feeding hay


  • Chilled and frozen in flat plastic drinks bottles or freezer bags
  • Removed after licking and given x litres colostrum by bottle or tube
  • Concentrates for rumen development plus straw
  • Hot water for washing calf water, milk and feed buckets and scrubbed with a brush


  • Adding coccidiostat to the calf concentrate
  • Vaccinating against pneumonia
  • Boosting heifer colostrum quality by vaccinating 6-8 weeks before calving

Keeping colostrum safe 

It’s not often that a dairy farmer will be seen shopping for freezer bags. But Ray Brown of the Bidlea herd in Holmes Chapel, was persuaded into action by discovering that his practice of leaving colostrum in the corner of the dairy was actually creating a bacterial soup.

“We always had colostrum ready for when a cow calved. But what I hadn’t realised until I heard Dr Sam Leadley, was that every 20min in warm conditions, the bacteria double. By leaving it for up to eight hours before use, we were effectively feeding a poison to our calves,” he explains.

“We now freeze colostrum in one-litre flat plastic freezer bags and have an outside freezer for storage. It’s a bit of a faff to fill and chill them, but far easier than specifically milking a cow and, because they freeze flat, they don’t take long to thaw.”

With some 75% of heifers being sold as they calve down, Mr Brown’s target 24-month calving requires a well-grown healthy animal. “We want something that can reach its genetic potential. The healthier we can rear our calves, the cheaper they are to rear and less trouble,” he says.

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