Jilly and her husband Karl are 50:50 sharemilkers on Charles and Jan Whitehead’s property at the foot of Mount Hutt. They run a low-cost calf-rearing system, which is the result of many years’ effort to improve their practices, including introducing colostrum testing using a Brix refractometer.
“Caring for calves the right way from birth is about much more than getting good replacements for your herd. I think it’s our moral obligation to care for all calves as best we can, whether they’re heifers, beef calves or bobbies,” says Jilly.
Ready to go
The Haywoods are grateful to their former vet, Nicola Neal from the Aspiring Calf Company, whose advice and guidance has been instrumental in helping them to establish a first-rate system for rearing great calves. They’re also grateful for the excellent calving infrastructure established by the Whiteheads.
“Jan used to do the calves herself, so she knows what works well," says Jilly.
“We have four pens for bobbies, a converted woolshed with milk lines running to 14 pens, and another eight-bay calf shed that we use for the heifers. This means I don’t have to put the calves outside until they’re ready to go.”
Jilly gets the calf pens ready in June before calving starts in August. She limes the floors, disinfects everything and pressure washes the feeders and wooden rails separating the calf sheds. She puts down woodchip on the floors just before calving.
Refractometer brings results
It’s impossible to test colostrum quality by simply looking at it, and quality varies from cow to cow. Using a Brix refractometer is one simple and inexpensive way to make sure calves get high-quality colostrum.
Jilly and Karl started using a Brix refractometer three years ago, based on the advice of Nicola Neal. She told the Haywoods about the latest colostrum research and the importance of giving calves the best quality colostrum as soon as possible after birth.
“We were farming in North Otago at the time, and the local vets were discussing how to increase the absorption of antibodies, and testing colostrum using a refractometer was the advice they gave,” says Jilly.
“This will be our fourth season using it, and from our records, we’ve definitely noticed huge improvements in the breeding stats of our heifers since we started testing the colostrum.
“For example, we’ve never lost a calf through illness and that’s directly related to giving them high-quality colostrum. I can’t say they never get sick, because we sometimes get scours, but the animals recover a lot quicker.
"It's also about other management practices like good hygiene and powers of observation, so that you pick up any problems quickly.”
Two seasons ago, Jilly and Karl decided to do something differently. The Brix refractometer wasn’t recording enough high-quality colostrum, so they began drafting and milking the newly calved cows twice a day (within 12 hours of calving). The sooner the colostrum is collected, the better the quality. Although this can be time-consuming, Jilly says the benefits are worth it.
When the colostrum cows come in for their first milking, each cow is milked into a test bucket.
“I have a line of buckets set up and we take a sample from each one using a pipette,” says Jilly. “We put a drop on to the refractometer and check the Brix reading (a measure of the antibody content). If it’s over 22 percent, it’s good quality, so we pool that colostrum.”
The Haywoods chill their cows’ colostrum in a refrigerated vat. Using a flow meter, Jilly pumps out the precise daily amount she needs into 200-litre barrels in the calf shed and warms it up. She adds colostrum preservative to the remainder, which is stored in an unrefrigerated 15,000-litre tank with a stirrer. The Haywoods don’t use milk from the vat or buy milk powder.
Jilly and Karl add potassium sorbate to any ‘gold’ colostrum (the best-quality colostrum that comes from a cow’s first milking after calving) that’s not used immediately. They then store this in clean buckets with lids for up to three days.
“I always have a store of ‘gold’ on hand and freeze it too,” says Jilly. “Potassium sorbate helps to preserve the colostrum and reduces bacteria contamination.”
Feeding newly collected calves
Jilly and Karl collect calves at least twice a day, and up to four times a day, depending on the weather and calf numbers. As soon as the calves come in, they’re tubed with two litres of ‘gold’ colostrum. Jilly trains the calves at their next feed and they usually drink straight away but, if not, they’re tubed again to ensure they get the full four litres of ‘gold’ colostrum.
“Because I’m looking after so many calves, I give them about 30 seconds to feed when they first come in. If they don’t feed, I tube them right away in order to guarantee every calf gets the right amount of gold as quickly as possible,” says Jilly.
When the calves are 10 days old, Jilly starts transitioning them from twice-a-day feeding to once-a-day, but she does this gradually.
“It’s not a case of ‘here’s double your breakfast; you’re having no tea’. I’ll increase the morning feed from two to four litres over four days, then feed them meal in the evening because I find that gets them eating meal really quickly. No two changes are made in the same week.
“It could be transitioning to once-a-day feeding one week, disbudding the next, or putting them outside another week. The order varies, depending on workload, but the idea is to keep the animals as stress-free as possible.”
End of season review
At the end of every season, the Haywoods review their farm performance, including calf rearing. They discuss what did and didn’t work well, and what changes they’ll make in the future.
“One thing that didn’t work so well last season was my levels of fatigue,” says Jilly. “We started calving at the end of July, and were still feeding the late-born calves until Christmas. Working at this level isn’t sustainable, even though Karl takes over when the school holidays start, so this year I’ll have help. It will be interesting to see how I go handing over some responsibility.”
New Calf Care Toolkit
Jilly recently trialled and gave feedback on DairyNZ’s new Calf Care Toolkit (dairynz.co.nz/calf-care-toolkit).
“I like that it’s interactive and is personalised to your answers and gives you advice on areas that you’re not doing well in, as well as giving you positive feedback on what you’re doing well.
“One area we’d like to address is to stop feeding penicillin milk. We don’t store it, but we do feed it as a cost-saving exercise. This is something we plan to stop doing in future.”
Looking to the future
The Haywoods would like to see the New Zealand dairy sector maintaining its reputation as a world-leader in animal welfare.
“All animals, including calves, should be valued and treated with compassion and respect, while at the same time being profitable and sustainable,” says Jilly.
“Our dream is that we can hold our heads high as a sector and say, yes, we take calves off their mums, but come and see everything we do to give them the best possible life.”
Jilly and Karl’s top calf rearing tips
✔ Preparation – get everything ready early and have a detailed plan in place for what the team needs to do in the calf shed.
✔ Gold colostrum – ensure you're feeding the right quantity at the right quality, quickly.
✔ Consistency – stick to a daily routine: same feeding times, same milk temperature, same high handling standards.
✔ Observation – always monitor calves' behaviour and appearance so you can spot any issues and act quickly.
✔ Environment – ensure calves have a warm, dry and well-ventilated area with comfortable bedding and plenty of space.
✔ Gradual changes – prevent stress to calves by transitioning them slowly; make no more than one change per week.
Three Qs of colostrum
Follow these rules to ensure calves get what they need from their colostrum:
Colostrum quality is measured by the amount of protective antibodies it contains. Use a Brix refractometer to test if your colostrum measures 22 percent or more.
Feed your calves as soon as you can – they can absorb antibodies only within their first 24 hours of birth. Every hour counts!
Calves should be fed four to six litres of colostrum within their first 12 hours of life. A calf can hold only about 1.5 to two litres in its abomasum (fourth stomach), so the goal is two feeds in 12 hours.
To learn more about setting up a great calf-rearing system, go to dairynz.co.nz/calf-care
Words: Christine Hartley Photos: Tony Benny
This article was originally published in Inside Dairy June 2019