VIDEO: Neil Baker dreams of closing his herd

I have a dream – I’d love a steady supply of healthy, happy, well-grown, homebred heifers.

I’ve not been able to close our herd since our herd expansion started 10 years ago. Boosting heifer calf numbers and heifer growth rates have been a priority over the past year or so.

I feel accelerating growth rates from week one to eight is a key period. We’ve been monitoring birth and weaning weights for quite a while now. Birth weights have been on average 39kg for heifer calves, so if the target is 90% of mature cow body weight at 24 months old, we need to achieve 675kg at 23 months old.

We have on average been gaining 40kg in the first 50 days, so that’s 800g a day, which means in the rest of the 650-day rearing period we need 915g of growth a day. These targets demand constant growth and no setbacks.

All our milk calves are on a twice-a-day bucket feeding system from day one, and are weaned at seven weeks. I’ve been feeding higher levels of milk powder for six months – the challenges on this system bring to the fore why the “little brown nut” systems can work really well.

Compliance with providing a non-stop supply of little brown nuts does not rely on milk powder concentrations, exact litres of milk fed and differences in milk temperatures. All these things are currently being tightened up with the use of new equipment, more staff training and, as always, protocols.

The other big challenge of more milk is wetter bedding and therefore more moisture in our calves’ air space. We currently have a new calf barn under construction. I’m really looking forward to seeing if better drainage and air flow on the exact same feed and health management will deliver better results.

Neil Baker talks about monitoring heifer growth rates.

Neil Baker manages his family’s dairy farm and cheese-making business at Haselbury Plucknett, Somerset. His 1,050-cow herd yields 10,200 litres a cow a year, with one-third of milk made into vintage cheddar on farm. Neil is the 2010 Farmers Weekly Dairy Farmer of the Year.


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