Just ask 50:50 sharemilkers Claude and Jolene Piggott.
When Claude and Jolene decided to send 15 extra replacement heifers off to a contract rearer in 2014, they had no idea their home-reared animals would perform so much better. While the contractor focused on growing calves at a low cost, Jolene worked hard and spent more on rearing her calves.
Three months later, the calves were brought back together and Jolene’s animals weighed an average 46kg more than those raised by the contractor. And the benefits didn’t end there.
The Piggots’ graziers were a part of a DairyNZ heifer grazing project, in which the performance of all the Piggotts' heifers was tracked over 18 months.
Some of those heifers reared by the contractor got sick when they arrived at the grazier, and they remained the smallest in their group, despite being given preferential treatment and feeding. While with the grazier, the lesser-grown animals saw an eight percent lower liveweight gain compared to the Piggotts’ reared heifers.
Even once the heifers calved, the contract-reared heifers were thinner and lighter so had to be dried off earlier to get them to body condition score targets.
Claude and Jolene realised that setting up a solid calf rearing system played a major role in achieving heifer liveweight targets. Not surprisingly, they’ve been doing their own calf rearing ever since.
“You have to be passionate to do something really well,” says Jolene. “Every year we learn something new about farming and that’s what we learned that year.”
Keeping calves healthy
The Piggotts’ calf shed is connected to a 1.5ha paddock, which is perfect for managing bacterial loads in the shed, as sunshine is one of the best ways to kill bacteria.
Preventing scours and ill-health in calves comes naturally to Jolene. She’s been rearing calves for the last seven years on two different farms, and has never had an illness outbreak in her calves.
“I’ve seen photos and videos of ill calves and that makes me very determined to ensure our calves are getting colostrum to build their immunity. If our calves got sick, that would be so demoralising."
Jolene and Claude feed colostrum to calves in their first four days, with new calves getting fresh colostrum once it’s collected. “Good quality colostrum is so important; it gets the immune system sorted,” says Jolene.
The calves are also offered fresh water and hay from day one, and Jolene gives the calves their first taste of meal by day three.
The Piggotts’ care for their calves has paid off: 86 percent of their returning heifers calved in the first three weeks of calving; their heifer/cow production is 82 percent of the herd’s production; and 100 percent of their rising three-year-olds got back in calf.
Claude and Jolene have learned that while calving is about setting up for the milking season, calf rearing is about setting up for future seasons.
For the 2017-18 season, the family is moving down the road to a new farm, milking 450 cows and rearing 90 calves. Jolene will get to try her system on another farm, and continue to rear calves into profitable and productive heifers.
Piggotts’ calf rearing system
Preparing for calving
- Sheds cleaned and sprayed out with viricide at least a month before calving, and sprayed every three days once calving starts.
- Equipment washed and disinfected.
- Woodchips used for bedding because it drains better than sawdust.
- Extra woodchip used to top up the bedding so it stays dry.
- Windproof netting used to stop cold drafts.
- Calf meal must be bought from a trusted brand, 20 percent crude protein, and a coccidiostat. Buy one bag first and test it for palatability before buying a tonne.
- Day 0-4: calves receive the best colostrum.
- Day 5-14: calves fed whole milk twice daily, up to 6L/ day, no penicillin milk, and some meal until each calf is eating 1kg meal/day.
- Day 14-17: calves transitioned to once-a-day feeding with feeds at night getting smaller over three days.
- Day 18 onwards: calves fed 6L each once-a-day, decreasing to 2L/calf as calves get older and start eating more meal and grass.
- Day 42 (six weeks): calves weighed every two to three weeks and weaned on weight, but seldom before eightweeks- old.
- 80kg for jerseys, 90kg for crossbred and 100kg friesians.
This article was originally published in Inside Dairy June 2017