AD-LIB machine feeding is to replace traditional calf rearing using buckets on one Berks farm this year, even though machine rearing is more expensive.
Mark Osman, livestock manager at Jealotts Hill Farm, Bracknell, says a machine rearing trial was instigated in an attempt to reduce pressure on the labour force. The 300ha (750-acre) farm rears 120 calves a year.
About 40 replacement heifers are reared for the dairy herd, which is expanding to 150 cows this year. The remaining 80 calves are reared for beef.
A review of rearing costs 18 months ago revealed that it cost £640 to rear a heifer, with £80 of that spent from birth to 12 weeks. With dairy and beef margins low it was important to keep rearing costs as low as possible, says Mr Osman.
"We decided to try a machine to save labour. We used a colostrum adaptor so we could still feed colostrum and waste milk, rather than have to rely on feeding milk powder.
"Last autumn, we fed two-thirds colostrum and waste milk and one-third milk substitute through the machine to the beef animals. Once colostrum ran out calves went onto powder without any set-backs," says Mr Osman.
Holstein Friesian heifers continued to be reared using buckets and milk substitute because Mr Osman didnt want to put replacement heifer growth rates at risk. These were fed two litres of warm milk substitute, twice a day.
Mr Osman admits that there were some concerns with blocked feed tubes on the machine. Blocked tubes caused calves to go for a period without feed, so after feed were unblocked calves tended to gorge themselves. These difficulties were resolved by washing out pipes daily and putting cold water through the machine for two hours when it had been blocked which helped prevent calves from scouring.
Although machine rearing cost £17 a calf more in feed because ad-lib calves drank more, it saved £11 a calf in labour. But the range of calf growth rates was unacceptable with some calves gaining under 0.5kg a day and others growing at over 1kg a day.
Machine reared calves were weaned at an average of 51 days old, weighing 80kg, having gained 0.68kg a day. Feed cost to 12 weeks, including milk powder, calf pellets, straw, and machine hire, was £62 a calf.
But Mr Osman was also disappointed with heifer growth rates when bucket rearing. The calf rearer also continued to feed milk for 57 days before weaning, using more milk powder than necessary. These calves gained 0.56kg a day and averaged 73kg at weaning. Bucket rearing cost £45 a calf to 12 weeks, including milk powder, calf pellets and straw.
However, many lessons had been learnt from the trial. Mr Osman, therefore, felt that the average liveweight gain of 0.68kg/day by machine rearing could be improved, with closer monitoring and improved calf training.
This spring, 42 calves were reared using the machine, but were weaned earlier – at 36 days – weighing 71kg. Their weight gain was more acceptable, averaging 0.85kg/day, above the target weight gain of 0.8kg a day. These calves were fed all colostrum available and topped up with milk substitute as needed.
Labour saved using the machine compared with bucket rearing is estimated to be worth £11 a calf, partially compensating for the extra feed costs. Machine rearing, therefore, was only about £6 a calf more expensive but these calves achieved a higher weight gain than bucket reared calves. Machine fed calves are more robust at weaning.
"If we had cheap, or spare labour available, we would stick with bucket rearing." But it doesnt make sense to employ an extra person to continue bucket rearing alone, says Mr Osman.
"We had some navel sucking in machine reared steers, but not in heifers, and that soon stopped."
All calves will now be reared using a machine, but closely monitoring calf rearing last year also revealed other management changes which would be beneficial.
Calves must be trained thoroughly to drink from the machine to ensure more even and higher weight gains.
Weighing calves at a day old and closer weight gain monitoring will continue. This should result in fewer days to weaning, reducing milk powder use.
Improving communication between staff will ensure feeding and cleaning routines are followed accurately, ensuring smooth running of the enterprise.
Calf rearing systems that ensure healthy well
grown calves are revealed in this special feature. But first
Jessica Buss finds out how bucket feeding and
machine rearing were put to the test
– physically and financially – on one Berks unit
All calves will now be reared by machine to save labour after the comparison at Jealotts Hill Farm. However, calves will be trained to drink carefully and weight gains closely monitored, says Mark Osman
Jeallots Hill calf rearing comparison
Bucket Machine (autumn 97) Machine (spring 98)
Calves reared 31 50 52
Daily LW gain (kg) 0.56 0.68 0.85
Feed cost £45 £62 –
• Feed more expensive.
• Achieved higher weight gains.
• Saved labour.
Until three years ago pneumonia and general respiratory ailments were common in a 36-pen purpose-built starter unit at Bryn Farm, Northop, Flintshire. The full impact of poor ventilation on calf development during the first six weeks of life was difficult to measure. But Glyn Jones decided it was unacceptable. His answer was to cut the top off Yorkshire boarding immediately under the eaves, and install a fan and perforated air extraction duct. Respiratory disease is now rare and mortality is less than 1%, even though calves are bought from many sources to rear for beef.