How dairy-beef calf rearers hit 1.2kg/day liveweight gain

Steve and Jo Pile are hitting daily liveweight gains of more than 1.2kg/day with calves at their state-of-the-art calf unit in South Wraxhall, Wiltshire.

They rear more than 1,400 dairy-beef calves for Blade Farming (part of the ABP Group) annually and are regularly exceeding Blade weight gain targets of 0.9kg by keeping a close eye on health, feed intakes and cleanliness.

Calves arrive on the unit at two to four weeks of age from Blade’s two collection centres in Devon and Shrewsbury weighing a minimum of 45kg.

See also: How to prevent and treat cryptosporidiosis in calves

The unit is filled over two weeks to minimise disease risks.

Farm facts

  • Own 4.8ha of land
  • Alongside the calf unit they run a herd of 40 Limousin suckler cows producing stores
  • Rent 61ha

Upon arrival calves are immediately given their first pnemonia vaccination and are bovine viral diarrhoea and EID-tagged before being grouped into eight pens of 30, with spacing exceeding the minimum requirement of 2.5 sq m per calf.


EID tags are connected to automatic milk machines in the shed, which monitor individual calf intakes.

Calves are fed 5.7 litres of milk a day as standard and milk is mixed at a ratio of 123g powder for every litre of water, with half a litre mixed each time calves visit the feeding unit.

This means the milk is kept fresh and fed at a constant temperature of 38C.

Calves transition very quickly to the automatic feeders on arrival as milk is supplied through teats, explains Mrs Pile.

“In the first day about 95% of calves will drink off it,” she adds.

Each time a calf enters the unit to drink weigh scales record its weight to help track daily liveweight gain.

This information is then fed back to the Blade IT system Farmworks.

This information, alongside drinking speed records, allows Mr and Mrs Pile to identify underperformers.

Steve and Jo Pile stand in a livestock shed

Steve and Jo Pile © Rhian Price

Lighter calves can then be put on to a higher feed rate of 7.2 litres/day and sick calves are moved to isolation pens to reduce disease spread.


With calves of different ages and from different sources mixing all in the same air space disease prevention can be a challenge, they admit.

“Once you get to seven to 10 days of filling the shed you can get scouring,” adds Mrs Pile, who says calves may then be given antibiotics in the milk on a case-by-case basis following a discussion with their vet.

Cleanliness at the unit is a top priority to prevent such outbreaks with sheds steam cleaned and rested for seven to 10 days after disinfection.

“The [milking] machine washes the pipes through a couple of times a day, but there’s no facility to wash the teats,” explains Mrs Pile, who now changes them twice a day – once in the morning and once in the evening.

This allows the teats to be disinfected for 12 hours – an easy yet effective job, which has helped cut mycoplasma outbreaks by 40%.

To further aid respiratory health the shed features electronic curtains which can be raised to improve airflow and closed on cold and wet days to help moderate the temperature inside the shed.

The doors are fitted with rubber to prevent drafts at ground level too.


Calves remain on milk for six weeks and are offered an 18% crude protein rearing nut ad-lib and fresh water and wheat straw throughout the pre-weaning phase.

A milk machine in a livestock shed

© Rhian Price

They are weaned at a target weight of 75-80kg and in the final week prior to weaning milk is gradually stepped down to 3.9 litres/day.

Calves then move into the weaning shed for another six weeks where they remain on the same rearing nut to keep the diet consistent and maximise intakes.

This is fed ad-lib alongside barley or wheat straw.

Previously, calves remained in their original pens but the Piles have found a benefit to grouping the smallest calves together at weaning.

“It makes it easier to monitor them and they don’t get bullied away from the trough,” explains Mrs Pile.

Inside the weaning shed, calves are weighed when their second vaccinations are given to reduce stress caused by handling to ensure they weigh 115kg at 12 weeks, when they move on to a growing unit.

Farm workshops

The four farm workshops will focus on the three most important factors affecting a cattle rearing enterprise: housing, health and nutrition.

Independent experts will be on hand to offer advice and answer questions to help you make your rearing business more efficient and profitable.

Jo and Steve Pile will be hosting the first event on 9 February.

To attend this free workshop or one of the other three see the Rethinking cattle performance website.


  1. Workshop two 2 March, The Midlands/Wales/Cheshire, Rick Ford – dairy heifer rearer
  1. Workshop three 16 March, Scottish Borders/Jedburgh, Robert Neil – beef finisher
  1. Workshop four – 30 March, Northern Ireland/Ballymoney/County Antrim, David Anderson – breed and sell stores