Westingdon Farm owner Warren and his partner Nicole are in a strong position to ensure all their calves are given a good start and positively contribute to the farm business.
Having spent his early years building up equity and scale, Warren now has just the one farm to focus on. Admittedly, it’s a large farm, but its singularity prompts them to double down on policy and practice, ensuring they get the best out of their land, staff and herd.
Their calf-rearing policy focuses on a simple philosophy: to ensure all calves, whether replacements, those reared for beef, or bobbies, get to enjoy a healthy, well-cared for time on the farm.
The couple also pay close attention to where their calves go when they leave the farm. That approach aligns well with the growing number of farmers wanting to explore options for non-replacement calves and ensure as many calves as possible are used in a meaningful way.
Better options with beef breeds
With the 294ha farm under Synlait’s Lead with Pride programme, Warren and Nicole started considering how best to minimise the number of non-replacements to manage in the first place.
“We opted to use sexed semen, which we put over the top one-third of the herd. Sexed semen does come at a cost, but as an investment, the genetic gain we get from it is significant,” says Warren.
Last season, they went a step further, synchronising their 230 heifers to cycle and be mated with sexed semen.
“The results were not quite as good as we may have hoped for, with only a 34% in-calf rate. That’s not as high as we would like, and we are still not sure if it’s a synchronising issue or a semen issue, but we are determined to stick with it. The level of genetic gain you get with the heifers and sexed semen represents a couple of years’ gain in one,” says Nicole.
For the past two seasons, they’ve also put the balance of their herd to Wagyu genetics. The offspring are a high-value Wagyu-cross calf, which Warren and Nicole sell for a premium to a rearer at five days old.
They appreciate it’s an option not available to all dairy farmers in all areas, but the opportunity generates a premium, reduces potential bobby numbers, and generates an income to help fund the sexed semen programme through the remainder of the herd and heifers.
Tidying up the late-calvers is done using Hereford genetics to make the distinction from Wagyu clearer at birth.
“We manage to sell about 80% of them too. They are generally good, rearable white face calves, and the markings define them well from the Wagyu,” explains Nicole.
Gold-standard calf care
With their breeding programme producing more valuable replacement calves, more calves for beef, and fewer bobbies, the couple have also refined their rearing process. It’s a simple stepped approach that staff engage well with – one that keeps calf health front and centre.
“It is helped by us both working together on it. That’s probably quite unusual, but it works well and we leave the rest of the team to manage the milkers and bring the calves and cows in from the paddocks,” says Warren.
Preparation well before calving includes laying fresh wood chips through the 14-bay rearing barn, ensuring each pen has a water supply and meal box in place from day one. Wood chip is a perennial favourite thanks to its ability to absorb moisture and be easily refreshed between mobs of calves.
Thanks to some well-coordinated teamwork between contract milker Dan Burrows and his team, who collect the calves, on arrival at their pens they’re efficiently allocated to their rearing area. Wagyu, replacements, and bobbies are penned separately.