3 July 1998


Soured colostrum and grazed grass are the mainstays of a

low cost calf rearing system on one Pembrokeshire farm.

Robert Davies reports

BESIDES soured colostrum and grass, heifers get small amounts of molassed rolled oats, minerals, silage and straw between birth and bulling at Wood Barn Farm. But Alan and Buffy Wheatley do not feed whole milk, milk powder, calf concentrate or a coarse mix.

The spring-born calves winter outside without obvious ill effects. In fact veterinary costs have been slashed since the rearing system was changed in 1997. A rotovirus problem has disappeared, and pneumonia and E coli are absent. The partners now question whether their clean grazing system means that in future they can be less reliant on an anthelmintic to control both stomach worms and husk.

The rearing system is part of a dramatic policy shift at Wood Barn Farm, Whiston. Like a significant number of farmers in the area, Mr and Mrs Wheatley are applying adapted New Zealand ideas to milk production. Instead of chasing yield with a tonne of cake and large quantities of expensive high quality silage the emphasis is on profit a cow.

Shut off early

Previously, 40ha (99 acres) of grass was shut off early for first-cut silage. Now 16ha (40 acres) will be conserved – possibly as hay, with surplus grass cut later in the season.

As there is less dependence on conserved grass a 4×4 tractor has been sold, so has the forage box and, because sand is now used on cubicle beds, so too has the straw chopper. The shorter winter housing period means less slurry and no work for the slurry stirrer, so it has gone. A contractor now spreads fertiliser.

Milk recording has been abandoned, as has summer buffer feeding, bi-cropping, and growing kale. Instead of operating a set stocking system dictated by the need to make a huge tonnage of silage, the 148 milkers are paddock grazing for as much of the year as possible.

Turnout in the day this year was on Feb 24, and the cows were out at night from Mar 20. The wet spring did mean that there were many days when they had to be re-housed, and there was some unwelcome poaching. But the early grazed paddocks have recovered very well.

When the decision was taken to switch from summer to spring block calving, and to base milk production on an extended grazing season, the Wheatleys also decided to make better use of the colostrum they previously fed to pigs. Because they found information difficult to get they overfed colostrum last year – it ran out and they ended up feeding £22 worth of whole milk to each of the 70 calves reared.

And when they introduced a coarse ration in addition to the 17.6% protein in the large volumes of colostrum fed the calves scoured. Internet information obtained from the US, New Zealand and Ireland made them realise that instead of feeding ad-lib colostrum, and later 4 litres a day, young calves needed only 2 litres plus 1 litre of warm water. This is then halved when molassed oats costing £110/t are offered.

Feeding less means that by using a £150 second-hand bulk tank for storing the first five days production from the cows they have enough to rear all their heifer calves. They also discovered that the colostrum soured naturally and did not need an expensive acidifying agent, or the addition of a yoghurt culture.

It is temporarily stored in plastic drums and adding a little of the previous batch, and stirring accelerates souring. The calves find it very palatable and experience shows that if allowed they will gorge themselves.

Weaning weights

"We wean at around 85kg if the calves are not going out immediately, or 100kg if turning out," says Mr Wheatley. "Weaned calves get 0.5kg of oats a day, plus clean bright straw until they get used to fresh grass. Last years calves spent the summer and autumn on grass alone. A small amount of oats was fed during bad weather at the end of December, and they had 64kg/head of silage dry matter between Jan 2 and Feb 15. Since then they have just grazed.

"We are convinced that their metabolism simply adapted to out-wintering. They are very fit and more or less on target for bulling at around 300kg. We have used New Zealand bulls for some years and this has influenced the cattles ability to fend for themselves."

The Wheatleys were warned that their calves would die, or be seriously undersized. In fact they appear less stressed than animals reared on a more conventional system. The birth to bulling costs of the first all-colostrum group will not be known for a long time, but the figures are expected to be low.

"The simplicity of the rearing system reflects what we are trying to do, which is to make optimum use of our own resources," says Mrs Wheatley, who does most of the rearing. "There were times last winter when I thought we might have to house them, but their condition never required it."

The partners herd once averaged 5300 litres a cow, of which less than 3000 litres came from forage. Now they aim to get more modest yields – they are not sure what can be achieved – mainly from grazed grass forage plus, perhaps, a very small quantity of magnesium carrying concentrate at turnout, and hay during the short winter housing period.

The paddock and road infrastructure is still being modified, but as with the feeding system, it has to be done economically. Their views on high cost cow tracks are unprintable.

"We changed because we were not happy with the enterprise bottom line, and believed that we had a better chance of surviving the business if we filled our quota with more cows on a low input-low cost system."

Mr and Mrs Wheatley are unconcerned about cow conformation beyond good durable legs and feet. To them high genetic merit is the ability to forage efficiently, and convert large quantities of herbage into a reasonable yield of high quality milk.

Herd expansion means they are short of winter housing for the cows. One solution being considered is to tack dry cows on one of 19 local farms registered with Pembrokeshire Machinery Ring as having unused cubicle sheds. &#42


&#8226 Young calves on two litres colostrum plus one litre water.

&#8226 Weaned calves on grass alone in summer and autumn.

&#8226 Outwintered, on oats plus 64kgDM/head grass silage.

Naturally soured colostrum is stored and fed to calves as part of the simplified rearing system, explains Buffy Wheatley.

Pembrokeshire producers Alan and Buffy Wheatley now paddock graze their 148 milkers for as much of the year as possible, instead of set stocking.

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