UK Calf Rearing Best Practices
Farmers Weekly has noted that over 80% of dairy farmers in the UK report themselves as being year-round calvers, while less than 20% follow a block calving regimen of spring or autumn calving.
No matter what your chosen approach, raising dairy calves is a huge annual expense, and has a delayed benefit in that the calves often don't become profitable until second lactation. There is a preconception that block calvers need to be better organised to reap efficiencies to offset sometimes lower payouts as spring calving herds can get slightly less per litre than year-round-calving herds on manufacturing contracts. There is much that can be learnt from both approaches, and here are a few best practices:
1 Start with quality breeding traits. Genetics in the dairy industry have made incredible advances in the last 20 years and its relatively easy now for farmers in the UK and Ireland to source high quality semen straws with many desirable traits including sexed semen with a 90% chance of producing females, high input traits, A2 milk and more. Do your research so you are starting from the best possible position and investing in your long term future.
2 Have dry, ventilated, covered calf pens ready to go. Inspect for drafts and test there is an adequate slope for drainage to avoid moister build-up and gases such as ammonia that can lead to pneumonia. If needed use calf covers or heat lamps in the early days.
3 Group calves together by age, and aim for fewer than a dozen per pen. This helps with monitoring their wellbeing and gives them space to move about.
4 Keep the same people managing the same calves. As staff get to know the individual calves they can better monitor behaviour and immediately identify if any animal is appearing poorly.
5 Start with true colostrum, it’s the best food to help build a calf's immunity and develop its rumen. Gather and freeze any spare colostrum in carefully marked bottles.
6 Feed calves by hand, and ensure all teats and bottles are sterilised and kept clean of contaminants. This helps ensure all calves get the required nutrition and that greedy calves don't dominate at the expense of others.
7 If a calf is poorly remove it immediately and have a special warm dry place prepared as an isolation unit if needed for sick calves. Have electrolytes available and get them into poorly calves immediately.
8 Invest in quality cleaning equipment such as a reliable hand pump for regularly spraying disinfectants when cleaning. It's important to be able to thoroughly clean pumps and change their seals if needed as this reduces the risk of issues with chemicals mixing or contamination. It is common for diseases to build up over time during calving, so be sure to maintain strict cleaning practices and not let staff slacken off near the end of calving.
There are dozens more tips and tricks to rearing dairy calves and across the UK and Ireland there are many websites and groups and networks where you can share and learn and improve your operations. At NZ Pump our Ezi-action drumpumps are there to help you get the job done year after year.