Investing in calves to secure dairying future

Refocusing on youngstock management has helped one Staffordshire based herd to reduce heifer age at first calving while also improving the value of beef calves.

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Rethinking their dairy breeding and calf rearing strategies has seen one dairy business see better returns for beef-cross calves and lower dairy heifer age at first calving.

Mike Madders and his sister Rosie Chandler run a 350 cow all-year-round calving pedigree Holstein Friesian herd near Stafford. Cows are housed during the winter and grazed during the summer, although high yielders are buffer fed with a TMR indoors at night during the grazing season.

The herd is averaging 10,000 litres, at 4.44% butterfat and 3.40% protein, and milk is sold to Arla on a contract that stipulates grazing. “When the opportunity came up to join the Arla CARE contract it made sense because it played to the strengths of our business,” says Mike.

They have always operated as a closed herd, breeding their own replacements, and have been working to reduce age at first calving to improve efficiency and sustainability. During the past three years the average age at first calving has fallen from 27.5 months to 25 months, with the aim to reach 24 months as a consistent average during the next 12 months.

They have also struggled to make the most of their more Friesian-type bull calves in the past. A number of factors, including Arla’s Every Calf Has a Value policy, saw them rethink their breeding and calf-rearing strategy.

Sexed semen

“We genomically test our heifers and are just breeding from the first tested batch now, putting the top 40% ranked by PLI to sexed semen. We may reduce this percentage in time, but we always want to breed some ‘spares’ and are aiming for a replacement rate of between 23% and 25%,” explains Mike. “Initially we used Belgian Blue sires on the cows, and Aberdeen Angus on heifers we weren’t breeding from, but the prices we realised for the Belgian Blue crosses were disappointing. And we were also seeing some calving difficulties.”

After rethinking the beef-cross calves’ route to market, the pair joined the ABP Blade Sainsbury’s Integrated Beef Supply Chain scheme. “We have to use the scheme’s designated Aberdeen Angus bulls, usually three or four each year, and we record full sire details on the passport and allow ABP Blade access to our NMR records, so they can log that animals are coming through the system,” says Mike.

Blade collects the calves at between 10 and 41 days old, and they go to an approved rearer before finally making their way to Sainsbury’s supermarket shelves. Calves are weighed onto the trailer and only those that are the correct grade are accepted. The dairy business receives a guaranteed return on the calves taken, which is reviewed quarterly.

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Future milkers

Replacement heifer calves are the future of the dairy herd. “And we know that calving heifers for the first time at 24 months improves business sustainability,” says Mike. “To achieve this, we need to give them the best possible start in life and optimise growth rates so we can serve them at the right size and age,” adds Rosie.

It was with this, and the health of the beef-cross calves, in mind that they erected a new calf building in 2021.

Calves stay with their dam for the first 48 hours and a close eye is kept on them to ensure they receive enough colostrum. Calves are topped up with additional colostrum if necessary.

“This also ensures we can monitor the mother, checking her dry matter intakes are good, and heading off any potential transition problems before they start,” says Rosie.

Calves, both beef and dairy replacements, then move to the new calf shed. They are kept in individual pens for two or three weeks, before being grouped. Milk consumption of ForFarmers' VITAMILK Premium, fed through bucket feeders, is gradually increased to seven litres per day.

This is a skim-milk-based complete milk replacer that offers a balanced, highly digestible fat and protein level to avoid digestive problems. “The high inclusion of skim milk ensures the calf has a plentiful supply of energy and protein for growth and development, and to maintain a high-health status,” says ForFarmers’ Roger Marley.

All calves are offered ad-lib fresh, clean water and ForFarmers’ VITA SUPER START pellets from the day they move into the shed. Intakes increase ‘organically’ as calves move towards weaning at between eight and nine weeks old.

“We move them to groups of five when we are confident they are suckling well and then calves stay in these groups throughout the rearing process. By three months old calves are fully onto heifer nuts,” says Mike.

“We use a weigh tape to keep on top of growth rates and Roger or another ForFarmers’ representative comes to weigh the heifer replacement calves every six weeks. It’s important for both dairy and beef calves that we are hitting those targets.”

If calves have been born before Christmas they are turned out on first-cut aftermath in May. If they were born after Christmas they stay indoors and move on to a grass-silage-based ration at around six months old. Both groups also receive an 18% protein nut, ForFarmers’ Eco Super Rearer 18. “We feed outside to avoid growth checks, but also to keep the heifers used to us and ensure they are easier to handle later on,” says Rosie.

Strong team

The pair have a strong team of skilled and dedicated staff who provide great support. “Having a member of staff who is passionate about calf care has been crucial to the success of the unit,” says Rosie.

“Clare Beardmore, who has been working with us since 2022, has exceptional knowledge and pays a high level of attention to detail. Just as we do with the cows, we now have a routine visit for our calves with the vet to talk through any concerns,” she adds.

The bright, well-ventilated and clean calf shed shows how meticulous Mike and Rosie, with help from Clare, have been to create and maintain a calf-rearing system that’s fit for purpose.

The milk preparation area comprises easy-clean stainless steel with a white board to keep the team up to date with information about each calf’s feeding regime and any health issues.

The team has clear goals for herd and business progression – and that certainly helps to focus minds. “Our investment in new calf housing and the heifer shed has paid off, both in terms of herd performance and beef-calf value.”

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