Breeding & Calves
Changing management to give every calf the best start in life
Focusing on colostrum management, moving from individual pens to outdoor hutches and employing an easier, more accurate way to feed milk has revolutionised calf rearing for a Warwickshire farmer. Joanne Pugh reports.
Going out and buying 60 new calf hutches all in one go is a fair investment by anyone’s standards, without the additional work of levelling a site, sorting the drainage and laying road planings.
But Martin and Carol Beaumont are delighted with the move from indoor rearing and the improvement they have seen in the calves at Shorn Hill Farm, Twycross, Warwickshire.
They milk 260 pedigree Holsteins, calving three-quarters of them between July and Christmas, with a complete break in May and June. At the peak of calving, they can get 20 calves a week, and pride themselves on a streamlined system which gives every calf the best start in life.
“I think we’ve actually got it sussed at last,” says Mr Beaumont, referring to the whole system from birth to weaning.
The new hutches arrived last summer, replacing individual pens in a shed, which Mrs Beaumont says was not ideal for calf rearing, mainly because of poor ventilation. That building will now be used for close-up dry cows and as a maternity ward, with the hope better management of these cows will also justify the investment in moving to the hutches.
Around 20 per cent of calves born are beef crosses, by a British Blue AI bull or Limousin sweeper, but these and the Holsteins males are treated just the same as the Holstein heifers and are not segregated until about eight months of age.
Having sold his last finished dairy bulls a couple of weeks ago, Mr Beaumont now castrates all bull calves and feels confident in a demand for strong stores, sold straight off the farm.
The beef-sired females are sold as bulling heifers and all dairy females are kept as replacements, with the aim of calving down ‘as close to two years as possible’ and gradually pushing up the size of the herd without buying stock in.
The 60 hutches are ‘just about enough’ for the peak calving
period, with each calf occupying its own hutch for eight weeks before being moved to batches in open yards and fed on a TMR.
In the winter, large straw bales were stacked along the north side of the hutch area to provide a wind break, but Mr Beaumont says the calves were unaffected by the cold weather, especially as the milk powder concentration was increased during the snowy period, to provide them with a little more energy.
“The calves definitely didn’t suffer,” he says. “They were great - it was the calf rearer that suffered. They didn’t seem to get any check at all.”
He puts this down to having acrylic hutches instead of plastic, as they seem better at staying warm in winter and cool in summer, although vents in the roof can be opened in very hot weather.
A couple of wads of straw are put in the bottom of each hutch before the calf arrives, with fresh straw added each day through a bedding hatch at the back of the hutch.
Pellets are introduced from day four and are topped up regularly. Fresh water is available at all times, except for the half-hour twice a day when milk replacer is put in front of the calves instead.
Weaning is at six weeks, but the calves remain in the hutch for another two weeks, which is a change from when they were reared indoors and something Mr Beaumont says has made a huge difference.
“We’re leaving them in the hutches for longer than we were in the individual pens and they seem to go on a lot better in the batches now. They are a bit older when we mix them and have that extra couple of weeks to get over the check of weaning before we mix them. They seem to be heavier and stronger at weaning too.”
Calves are dehorned and castrated in the hutches and get a single dose intranasal pneumonia vaccine at three weeks old.
Mrs Beaumont says it was a ‘bit of a battle’ with pneumonia in the old shed, but they are ‘definitely’ using less antibiotics now, and only needed half a dozen scour boluses all winter.
They are prepared for a potential coccidiosis problem in the future (as a farmer in the same vet group had a problem with the bacteria building up in the ground beneath hutches), so they will replace the top surface of the road planings if this occurs.
Mrs Beaumont says they have tweaked the system so each calf has the same bucket all of the time, reducing cross-contamination. The bucket is filled with milk each morning, then replenished with water half an hour later, before being emptied and filled with milk again later in the day.
Mixing this milk and feeding it out has been ‘revolutionised’ by a German-engineered ‘milk taxi’, sourced through Wynnstay.
The small self-propelled machine mixes and heats the milk to a temperature set by the user and distributes an accurate measure to each calf.
Mr Beaumont says it has ‘cut a lot of the work out’ and is much easier than pushing around their previous milk mixer. Two loads had to be processed in the old mixer but the taxi will do 130 litres, more than enough - even when all the hutches are full.
It can also be used to distribute water in between milk feeds.
Mrs Beaumont says it maintains the milk at a consistent temperature and keeps the powder in suspension, meaning no more clumps at the bottom of the mix.
“No matter who feeds the calves it’s the same temperature and, because it’s accurately measured, it gives us accuracy of feeding and they get the right amount,” says Mr Beaumont.
It has a wash cycle which is run twice a day with water and the same chemical used to clean the bulk tank. It is then filled with cold water ready for plugging in to heat up an hour before the next feed.
Underpinning this whole feeding regime is a strong colostrum management policy, ensuring every calf gets its quota before being moved into a hutch and on to milk replacer.
The Beaumonts were featured in Farmers Guardian just over a year ago, reporting on their battle to get control of Johne’s in the herd. Infected cows are being slowly bred out, but the ones remaining mean management at calving is critical.
Mrs Beaumont says they would be as strict with colostrum, even without the disease, due to the value they place on the antibodies and immunoglobulin in the cow’s first milk.
Every calf gets colostrum from a bank produced and frozen on the farm, with the intention of this being bottle fed or tubed within one-hour of birth. The cow is later milked, her colostrum tested with a colostrometer and, if it passes, fed to the calf for its second feed, before being moved to a hutch.
Any surplus colostrum is frozen in special American-designed sachets, each marked with the date and cow it came from.
No poor quality colostrum is frozen, or anything from Johne’s cows. All Johne’s cows are put to a beef bull and have their calf snatched at birth.
While the sachets defrost more quickly than the previously used pop bottles, Mr Beaumont is frustrated by the lack of an affordable machine to simply and effectively bring them up to temperature.
He wants some kind of bath which slowly moves the sachet in warm water to speed up the defrosting process, and is always on the look out for a solution or new technology.
“That first milking is when we test the colostrum and put some into a bank,” he says.
“But as we want to get milk in the calf before that, in the first hour of life, we have to have a bank of frozen colostrum. It’s got to be streamlined and an easy system to make it work.”
- 260 milking cows, with numbers gradually increasing
- Herd average of 9,000 litres
- Home farm of 100ha (250 acres) with 200ha (500 acres) farmed in total
- Grass and maize grown for silage, plus a small area of wheat
- Most straw bought in and the best reserved for young calves
- £16,000 investment in new hutches and dedicated area for calf rearing
- A ‘milk taxi’ was bought to mix, heat and feed out milk replacer
- Newborn calves fed colostrum within one hour, produced on the farm but not necessarily from their own mother. Colostrum from a calf’s dam fed later, if it is of high enough quality