For the Future of Farming


Make informed choices when it comes to the cost of youngstock rearing

This was the advice of four industry experts speaking at a recent ForFarmers Youngstock conference.  ForFarmers held three regional events taking place in Cheshire, Lancashire and Ayrshire. The events saw more than 200 farmers listen to advice on making the right choices when it comes to heifer rearing, and hear a warning that cutting costs in the wrong places will often lead to more expense in the long run.

Heading into what will, undoubtedly, be a tough winter for dairy farmers, one of the main talking points at the conference was looking at the different choices regarding your heifer rearing system, and the opportunities to save money without impacting future herd health and performance.

Is whole milk the obvious choice?

Peter van t ‘Veld is the International Technical Manager at Denkavit NL - specialists in young animal nutrition. Peter looked at some of the choices producers have to make when it comes to calf rearing, and explained that sometimes the most obvious options are not always the best for the calf.

Focusing on the use of calf milk replacer versus whole milk, Peter looked at the risks as well as the practical limitations of feeding saleable whole milk to calves, including the insufficient level of micro ingredients in cows’ milk, risk of disease transmission, rapid bacterial growth and high fat levels. Farmers should also understand that even in a low milk-price market, a quality milk replacer is often still more cost effective than whole milk. And with waste milk being even more of a challenge to manage with potential antibiotic residues, high SCC and bacterial contamination severely affecting milk composition, this seemingly cheap alternative to calf milk replacer could have such a detrimental impact on calf health that it can become a costly choice for some farms.

Peter also highlighted the dangers of ‘rumen drinking’ where calves are overfed and excess whole milk or milk replacer enters the developing rumen rather than the abomasum, leading to a range of issues such as poor digestion, dry coats, diarrhoea and poor rumen development.  Peter advised that the 5% rule should be followed - a calf receives no more than 5% of its bodyweight in milk or milk replacer per feed during the first ten days of life.  This avoids over feeding and the resulting health issues.

What does successful heifer rearing look like?

Owen Atkinson of Dairy Veterinary Consultancy shared findings from the recent Welsh Dairy Youngstock Project. Led by the Dairy Development Centre, the research project was undertaken between April and June 2015 with the objective of capturing current practices and performance to determine the success factors for rearing replacement dairy heifers in Wales.

At the start of the project the survey farmers were asked how they rated their current heifer rearing performance, many of the farms were satisfied with their own heifer rearing performance, and said that they don't consider youngstock health a priority on farm versus other issues such as fertility, lameness and mastitis. However, national figures show that 14.5% of dairy heifers are culled before calving, there is a 20% treatment rate for pneumonia and 23% for scour - on completion, the survey results showed similar findings. All of these are costs borne solely by the producer so it is certainly an area farms should be prioritising

The project looked at colostrum management, incidence of calf scour and pneumonia, weaning weights and age at first calving.  Each area highlighted clear success factors on the farms that had better heifer rearing performance.  The results of the project provide a good basis for producers to question practices on their own farms that they could be doing better, and with some easily achievable wins that don't cost anything, such as consistent feeding protocols, there’s room for improvement on most farms that could be worth 1.3ppl on a farm with average performance.

Rear your heifers in the most cost effective way

ForFarmers’ Youngstock Specialists, Rachael Kennerley and Lindsay Reynolds, talked through the economics of heifer rearing, highlighting that rearing replacements is a costly job at potentially £2,000 per animal, representing 20% of UK dairy farm expenses.   With the challenges facing farms this winter, calving at 24 months can slip off the priority list and cutting rearing costs in the short term can seem like an attractive option.  The message was simple – look carefully before making cost savings to insure they do not impact future herd health and performance.  ForFarmers offer a monthly or one-off youngstock costing service that quickly pinpoints current costs and can provide a guide to making informed decisions about saving money without creating future expense. 

It was emphasised that good colostrum management gives calves the best start and costs nothing, and getting it right will save time and money in the long run through better health and improved growth rates. The same goes for pre-weaning, with the early days of calf feeding costing less than 11% of total rearing costs, it is not sensible to try and save money early on only to have to push growth targets later in a calf’s life when it is more costly due to lower feed conversion.

By monitoring performance and costs including weight gains, conception rates and feed usage, it’s much easier to make informed decisions about where and how to cut costs this winter.