And that doesn’t change, even in tight times, say Mid Canterbury dairy farmers Craig and Hannah Fulton.
“You could almost say ‘don’t be tight about calving in tight times,’” says Craig. “Calving is not something we wish or choose to skimp on because there is animal health involved. It is also pivotal to setting up the whole season.
“In tight times I think if you do a system well and just pay attention to detail, that will save from things going wrong and save you money long term.”
Well-honed calving system
The Fultons run 640 crossbred cows on 175ha (160ha effective) at Hinds in Mid Canterbury, in an equity partnership. They’ve developed a system for calving that has worked well for them on a 340-cow farm in Waikato, a 1000-cow operation in Canterbury and their current farm.
Preparation for calving started as the 2015-2016 season was winding down, drying off and wintering cows on condition score and preferentially feeding them and then splitting the herd into calving mobs in late June/early July. Once calving starts, their two staff will be milking full-time while Craig and Hannah concentrate on the calving cows and calves.
“Basically we say to the guys ‘the shed is your baby, you guys get up, milk the cows and do wires, that’s your job, focus on that, don’t worry about any late nights,” Craig says.
“We’ll check the cows last thing at night, that could be 9 or 10, and if I have trouble, I’ll go back at 3 or 4 in the morning, whatever, and if I’m up, then I’ll get the cows in for them.”
Sometimes they may swap things around to give everyone a break but for the most part, the staff make sure the shed runs like clockwork while Hannah and Craig look after the springers and calves and give a hand with the colostrum cows in the shed.
Craig has put together two emergency packs so he’s ready to tackle calving problems as they crop up.
“There are ropes and pulleys in there, a set of metabolics for two cows, anti-inflammatories, lube and a notebook. I carry one with me at all times and there’s one at the shed so if they have any problems, they just grab the bag and they know that they have everything in there to deal with a down cow or a calving cow.”
The “old Hiluxes” Craig uses on the farm are set up for calving, with the deck covered in artificial turf so the calves don’t slip and slide – and which is easily swapped daily and a clean one used. A sprayer loaded with iodine hangs on the side so each calf picked up can be navel sprayed in the paddock.
They’re sprayed again once they get to the calf shed. “I still get the odd navel infection but hopefully not many,” says Hannah. “It’s attention to detail, it’s fixing problems on the day and not leaving them – a lot of animal health is being timely, it’s rapid response.”
“Gold” colostrum key to success
Central to the system is what Hannah calls their “gold”, the rich colostrum found in the cow’s first milk. She puts in an order with the shed for, say, four test buckets of colostrum, preferably from older cows and makes sure every calf that comes from the paddock, whether they be heifers or bobbies, gets a good feed of it straight away, giving them the best start possible.
“The new ones get that but I don’t tube everything. I don’t really like tubing and it’s interesting that scientific research has come out recently saying blanket tubing isn’t great. However I realise in some systems it works where there are a lot of calves.
“The main thing is that all our newborn calves receive at least 2-4 litres of gold as soon after birth as possible. Our system of collecting calves twice a day ensures this.”
Calves prefer their colostrum not to be too cold so Hannah has a warmer on hand to keep the precious fluid at the optimum temperature.
Bobbies kept if possible
The Fultons send as few bobbies away as possible, preferring to raise friesian and hereford bulls to 100kg and then sell them, along with rearing all their AB heifer calves. There’s no market for crossbred bulls so they go on the bobby truck at four days.
“It’s really only what can’t go back into the industry as a good solid beef breed that we have to send away,” says Hannah.
The calf shed – which is sprayed with Vircon disinfectant twice a week – has rock, covered with windbreak cloth and then a layer of bark chips on the floor. This allows fluid waste to drain away while the solids are collected in the chip and at the end of the calving, the cloth can be lifted up and the shed cleaned out.
Hannah always orders an extra few metres of chip so the pens can be refreshed partway through calving. Every pen has an automatic water trough.
Getting calves up to weight a priority
The first calves are given a choice of a couple of different brands of 20 percent protein calf meal and once they’ve shown what they prefer, Hannah buys in roughly a tonne of that feed.
“I buy a couple of bags and see which one they like best and then get that. Every year they like something different.”
They then move on to barley which the Fultons buy in. “We have a chap who comes in and crushes barley from our silo and adds molasses, vitamins and minerals, and that’s a cheap feed because it’s basically the price you bought the barley for plus his nominal fee. We do feed it a lot longer because it’s so much cheaper.”
Over the past couple of seasons the Fultons have been shuffling the calves around, both in the pens and in the paddock, to make sure they’re with similar sized animals.
“We just give every calf every possibility, you want to get them up to weight as quickly as you can and we just found that shuffling them worked a lot better. They’re all competing on an even playing field.”
At 85kg, the calves are weaned off milk and at 100kg the heifers are sent to the Fulton’s business partner in Cheviot, North Canterbury, to be reared and the beef animals are sold.
Don’t skimp on calving
Calving is where a successful season starts and the Fultons say this isn’t an area where farmers should skimp. If anything, they say, farmers should take on extra staff, even if it’s only for six weeks, to get through the critical time.
“Making sure you’re fully staffed over spring is the best thing you can do otherwise the wheels can fall off and it creates a bad start for the team and the herd early in the season,” says Hannah.
“Pinching pennies at that time of the season may seem like a good idea but it can go wrong very quickly. As long as you pay attention to detail, stick to the system that you know works and create contingencies for adversities, then you’re pretty right.”
This article was originally published in Inside Dairy June 2016