Large-scale dairy: Good colostrum is key

Many UK dairy producers use a contract heifer rearer who rears just one farm’s calves – but what about one rearer for 37,000 calves from 42 different units?

Managing calves on such a large scale may sound like a challenge but, for Millenkamp Cattle, Jerome, USA, ensuring calves are provided with top-quality, pasteurised colostrum and milk goes a long way towards achieving impressive results.

Making sure calves receive enough colostrum before entering the unit is key, says Mark Harrison, unit manager.

“To help heifers get off to a good start and guarantee we are provided with a fit and healthy calf, we supply pasteurised colostrum to all the dairies sending us calves.”

Colostrum is collected and pooled from different farms, pasteurised at Millenkamp and then sent back to the dairies. “Farms are not necessarily receiving the same colostrum, but they are all receiving the same quality colostrum,” he says.

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Find out what UK dairy farmers think we could learn from large-scale units in the USA, and their answer to the question “Do you think high cow numbers means low cow welfare?” here

You can also read what consultants and US farmers thought.

Why fix a problem here when it can be fixed at the dairies? asks unit owner Bill Millenkamp.

“There is no point not giving the dairies any responsibility or they have no incentive to do well – we don’t want to see sick calves.” And with 220 heifers entering the unit every day, it is essential any risks are reduced.

“Cost varies, but we charge about $2 (£1.38) a head a day – we may be some of the highest-priced guys, but we are achieving good production with mortality rates of 2-4% and cull rates of 1.5%.” The owners stand all losses.

The 13,000 calves on milk are receiving 75% pasteurised waste milk topped up with milk replacer in two feeds, totalling 3.8 litres a day.

When calves are picked up we also collect waste milk, which is returned to Millenkamp to be pasteurised, says Mr Harrison.

“Pasteurising and ensuring milk is fed to calves at body temperature, about 38C, is one of the most important things to prevent scours,” explains Mr Harrison.

All milk pasteurisation and mixing is automated, so milk can be mixed according to age group, with smaller calves receiving different ratios of vitamins and the system flagging up how much water, fat and replacer is needed to be added.

Heifers are reared from 24 hours to 6-7 months of age, with calves housed in wooden hutches for the first 81 days. Stock are then moved into open lots where they progress from groups of 25 to 75 to 150.

Calves are weaned late at 13.5 weeks old to get the most from milk. “We like to keep calves on milk for as long as possible to produce a strong calf that will compete well when they are moved into group housing.”

US Dairy Farming Facts

• 9.2 million dairy cows

• Oversupply of milk influencing low milk price

• Average yields of 9318 litres a cow a year

• 60,000 dairy farms

• Smaller-sized herds have dropped significantly, with herds of 200-500 cows reducing by 25-46% in the past nine years.

• The number of herds of 2000+ cows has increased by 160% in the past nine years

• At the moment, cull cows are worth £786 and in-calf heifers £642, meaning dairy farmers are culling hard

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