Early colostrum drench lifts quality

Plenty of colostrum followed by whole milk helps ensure Chris James meets the standard required by the export trade.

Farmers rearing dairy bull calves for the export market can maximise opportunities to produce the best animal for sale by drenching with colostrum within 12 hours of birth.

At Stackpole Home Farm, Pembrokeshire, every calf is drenched between six and 12 hours after it is born with three litres of milk treated with a rotavirus vaccine.

Farmer Chris James reckons colostrum management is crucial to any system. If farmers get that right they won’t have to spend a penny on medication, he says.

His calf manager, Claire Watts, rears calves on yogurtised milk to get the necessary bloom before they are sold at two weeks old. They drink this milk ad lib from a drum fitted with peach teats, consuming an average of between 4 and 6 litres. At 14 days their individual intake is about 10 litres.

Mr James, who has experience of rearing his heifer calves in this way, says Friesian calves are ideal for this system because they learn to suckle quickly.

“Once calves can suckle by themselves we leave them to it, so the system has a low labour input. We are trying to replicate the natural method of a calf being reared on a cow,” he says.

“Because the calves get milk on demand they never gorge because they feel full most of the time.” Mr James runs his dairy herd on an extended grazing system and selects a durable type of Friesian cow. One of the benefits is that these cows tend to throw very good Friesian bull calves, he says. Milk is pumped through a 32mm pipe from a central bulk tank with an agitator to the calf pens.

Although Mr James admits returns from the bull beef market are marginal, his aim is to produce bull calves at the upper end of the price range.

It is costing him £30 in milk to rear calves, but says he is targeting high feed rates to get the calves ready for sale as quickly as possible.

“We have a high volume of calves, so it is important we get them gone as soon as possible. In our experience it is better to feed more milk in a short space of time that way you get better looking calves, and the market likes fresh calves with a bloom on them.”

And the longer it takes to rear the calf, the higher the cost implications of housing them, he says. With the sale price averaging £65 a calf, Mr James says he can’t afford to have any losses. “When calves suffer with scours the losses could be serious, so ventilation and colostrum management have to be excellent. Everything else should then fall into place,” he says. He is currently rearing 400 calves and has had no losses.

Aeron Jenkins, who also runs a block spring-calving herd, has adopted a different approach, feeding his calves colostrum for six days before changing their feed to powdered replacement milk.

Although he also uses drums with peach teats, he can’t feed milk on an ad-lib system because the sediment settles in the bottom of the drum. Instead, calves are fed twice a day.

Calves are penned in batches of 14 and an electric pump distributes milk to two barrels outside the pens. They are turned out of their pens in batches to feed. “We can go off to do other jobs while calves are feeding,” says Mr Jenkins, who runs a herd of 250 cows at Pentrefelin, Talsarn.

The milk is fed cold because Mr Jenkins says he gets the same results as he would if he warmed the milk and can, therefore, save on energy costs.


Targeting high feed rates will help get calves ready for sale as fast as possible.

The export market, he says, is not prepared to reward farmers for top quality calves, preferring instead a well-reared common-type calf.

Exporter Andrew Hendy, of Bristol, agrees. He said the market needs fresh, healthy calves. “The calves we are interested in are those that have had a good start. When a farmer gets that right it can mean a difference of £50 or more,” says Mr Hendy.

Export Calves

  • Good start
  • Aim for bloom
  • Plenty of milk