Designing livestock housing which minimises stress and disease risk was vital for calf rearers Bev and Dave Horton, Devon.
Running a 200-head calf-rearing system in Upton Pyne, the Hortons have little margin for error in order to meet their tight Blade Farming specification of a 110kg minimum after 12 weeks.
For Mr Horton, achieving the 1kg/day weight gain they need to meet their contract hinges on getting housing conditions exactly right.
“When you bring an animal into a building that is challenging, it will be fighting the elements rather than growing,” he says.
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Specifically this year, when margins are tight on feed, you need that animal to grow quickly and properly, not use its energy to fight disease.”
Using his experience from working for an agricultural hygiene company, Mr Horton designed a housing unit which addressed his key concerns: stress, airflow, and hygiene.
“We look after animals at their most vulnerable stage, from 1-2 weeks old, so anything we can do to reduce stress is important,” says Mr Horton.
“We put them into groups of 10 to help them bond and get them into a routine of eating and drinking. Routine is fundamental to calf-rearing, so we make sure they are fed at the same time by the same person,” he says.
When they are weaned they are put into larger pens in groups of 20 so they can get used to being around more animals and display natural behaviour.
Perfecting air flow around the unit to ensure calves get fresh air, but are not in line with the wind was a case of trial and error for the Hortons.
“We smoke bombed the building to see how the air moved in the sheds,” Mr Horton says. “We found the air flow wasn’t quite right, so we had to take the side cladding off and reposition it.
“The ridging on the roof is also important – we had to raise the roof to raise the stack effect so the air enters from the side and exits from the top.”
The couple rear two batches of 100 cows a time across two sheds, operating an all-in, all-out system, which helps with hygiene as the pens can be fully washed.
“Washing creates huge volumes of water, so we installed underground drainage to make sure all the dirty water is kept away from the animals,” Mr Horton says. “We also went for a concrete floor as we could sterilise it more easily.
“Everything we do is to prevent disease spread, especially as we are trying to reduce antibiotic use on the unit,” he adds.
“Bev is from a catering background so we have different-coloured buckets for different jobs. We also make sure bedding areas are kept nice and dry and we have shallow drinkers so any contamination in the troughs is visible.
“It’s detail like this, regardless of whether you are rearing youngstock, dairy or beef cattle, that help an animal to meet its full potential when it’s housed.”