By getting the basics right, these farmers consistently grow healthy and productive young stock capable of entering the herd in top nick.
Kelly West happily acknowledges she is “pretty damn fussy” when it comes to rearing quality calves.
She and husband Andrew are 50:50 sharemilkers in Paterangi, Waikato, and their passion for rearing is paying off. The couple’s herd is in the top one percent of Breeding Worth and Production Worth nationally, and regularly averages 400 kilograms of milksolids per cow (kg MS/cow).
The Wests rear around 100 replacement calves each year. Kelly, who takes care of the rearing, says she’s learned valuable lessons by going through some tough experiences.
Strict approach to hygiene
Early on she dealt with cryptosporidium and rotavirus infections in the pens one season, losing eight valuable replacements.
“I vowed that wouldn’t happen again and ramped up hygiene before, during and after calf rearing.”
Kelly’s hygiene regime now is closer to what you’d see on tightly managed pig and poultry units.
“We clean the wood chips out of the sheds after mating, leaving the sheds to get light and air over summer to knock bugs back, and we use new shavings every year.”
She’s found sawdust is far from ideal, as it quickly becomes heavy, soggy and unhygienic, and that wood shavings provide better airflow and drainage.
“Starting last season, we spread chloride of lime under the shavings as another way to manage bugs.”
Kelly also scatters chloride of lime in the tracks of the bobby calf truck, particularly where its wheels have been and where calves have been loaded on.
“It’s just common sense when you think how many farms – and potentially how many bugs – the truck and calves have been in contact with.”
As well as spraying the pens with Virkon disinfectant once a week, she also pours Virkon into old Teatseal containers to be used as foot baths by anyone entering the rearing sheds. The Wests clean their water troughs daily and the troughs fill automatically with a ballcock system.
Having multiple rearing sheds and plenty of room means Kelly can split the reared calves into three groups: replacements, bulls to sell, and bobbies. The replacements are then split into mobs of 10 based on their age, size or drinking ability.
Systems for calf health
Creating a stress-free and disease-free environment for calves is only half the story; Kelly also works hard to ensures her calves are as healthy and disease-resistant as possible from day one.
“I’ve learned how critical colostrum intake is, as early as possible. We work on collecting cows and calves twice a day, and the calves will get first colostrum straight off – a minimum of 2.5 litres (L), and tubed down if I absolutely have to. That’s followed by another 2.5L the next feed. The third feed is mixed colostrum from the vat.”
Kelly sprays new-borns’ navels with iodine in the paddock, then again when they arrive in the pen, and again the next day. She checks over the following week for any swelling as a sign of infection.
For the critical first three weeks, Kelly feeds the calves a total of 5L twice a day, dropping down to 4L once a day in the mornings after that.
“I’ve learned it’s the first three weeks when things can go really wrong, and it’s worth investing the time in getting calves off to a good start. Healthy calves easily handle five litres a day.”
Hitting weight targets
When the calves hit 80kg, Kelly weans them off milk, staggered over four days to ease the stress, while she ramps up meal volumes.
“We ensure meal content is high at about 1.5kg/calf because there’s a coccidiosis risk on this farm that meal will help mitigate.”
The Wests use 200L drums cut in half lengthwise, rested on frames and skids to provide ample feeding space.
Kelly injects the calves alternately with B12 or B12-selenium with every worm drench. All calves are given a copper bullet before leaving for grazing. Nothing leaves the farm under 100kg.
“B12 brings a huge difference. It promotes good skeletal growth and appetite and calves look brighter and healthier,” she says.
Come late-spring, the weights speak volumes about Kelly’s care and attention.
“We’re looking for weights of 135-145kg by December 1 and we monitor weights with our grazier until they come back home. You spend too much money getting good calves born, reared and weaned to give it to someone else to go on and do a bad job from there.”
Bigger operation, same passion
Further east in Whitehall, near Cambridge, Vickie and Peter Risi run a larger operation than the Wests but they’re just as focused on quality calf rearing. The couple rear 150-160 replacements annually for their 750-head herd.
Like Kelly, Vickie will have calf pens emptied coming into summer. She’ll spray and clean the pens, cover them with agrilime, and then lay wood chips down ready for the next season.
The Risis have a generous rearing space, with three purposebuilt sheds and another specifically for bobbies. They’ve also built a raised pen so it’s easy for the collection truck to back in, eliminating stressful lifting and handling for staff and calves.
Thanks to good mating records, Peter is able to designate calving mobs specific to calving dates, and he knows which mobs have replacement calves coming out of them. DNA matching means there is minimal stress on cows or calves at collection each morning.
“We just need to know the sex of the calves we’re collecting and DNA will match them to their mothers later,” says Peter.
The Risis speed up calf collection by having a separate trailer for each of their multiple springer mobs. They keep the trailers clean and dry, and regularly refurbished with hay to cushion the calves’ trip to the pens.
Making colostrum a priority
“We’ll get colostrum into any calf that looks like it needs a drink once back at the pens,” says Peter. “Vickie is good at identifying them and the sooner the better to reduce the chance of them getting sick later.”
Colostrum collection is a priority for the couple. Using a small purpose-built herringbone incorporated into the rotary, they milk dairy and colostrum cows through until they come clear, and the colostrum is stored in a chiller vat.
“It means I don’t have to wait until milking is finished to get the colostrum; I can get it early and warm,” says Vickie.
The calves are fed 3L of colostrum morning and night for up to three weeks, dropping to 4L once a day and meal ad-lib after that.
“We also have water troughs and hay feeders in the sheds. The sheds are very good, and useful for storing equipment through the rest of the year,” says Vickie.
The calves are later distributed around four barns with paddocks in front of them, giving them the best of both worlds as they grow towards weaning.
Sticking to routines
Vickie says she’s been fortunate to have a patient and careful rearing assistant in Allan Buchanan, who is invaluable throughout the rearing season, especially on the big ‘30-plus’ calf delivery days.
“We stick to our routines. We know what’s going on and which calves may require more attention over the days they’re in the sheds.”
Infections are kept at bay with once-weekly sprays of Virkon, and any scouring signs are treated with an electrolyte recipe Vickie’s obtained from her vet.
“Generally, we have a good run and keeping the bobbies separate helps a lot. We also put additional shavings in their pens and that seems to help keep infection risk lower.”
Vickie believes keeping the calves in their initial groups and pens rather than mixing them up as they age helps reduce any infection from spreading.
In recent years, they have started weaning based on weight, targeting 90kg for the crossbred calves.
Like all dairy farmers, Vickie and Peter know the days are never long enough at calving time, but they do manage to find some work-life balance.
“We started doing some ballroom dancing and it’s great for taking your mind and body off the farm, helping us concentrate on something different,” says Vickie.
The Risis give their long-time staff members a good breakfast at the farm dairy every morning, at which time Peter chats with them about the day and week ahead.
“We also stick to a roster all year round (even during calving) that runs seven days on and two off, seven on and two off, then seven on and three off which includes a weekend,” says Vickie.
Meantime, there is a nice line of continuity for Vickie after she’s weaned her calves. She and Peter keep their young stock on-farm through to maturity, meaning Vickie can easily track her replacements’ growth rates.
“They are the next generation for your herd. You really cannot scrimp on their feed and health or you won’t get all you can back from them once they’re in the herd.”
This article was originally published in Inside Dairy June 2017