When Evan and Sheriden Williams and their son-in-law Graeme Lowndes installed a robotic dairy in a new purpose-built shed last year, they decided to retrofit the decommissioned rotary dairy platform as a calf-rearing shed.
The Williamses invested in a four-bay automated milking system (robotic dairy) on their Yannathan, Vic, farm in a bid to provide an income and a better lifestyle for themselves and their daughter and son-in-law and their young family.
"We wanted to ease back and our daughter and son-in-law wanted to come onto the farm, but they have two young children. We wanted to offer them a better lifestyle," Mrs Williams said.
The added advantage has been Mr and Mrs Williams regaining their enthusiasm and energy for working in the dairy industry, without having to spend so much time milking.
The 280-300 head self-replacing Holstein milking herd produces 9000 litres of milk annually, a figure that has been maintained since changing to the robotic dairy.
The split-calving herd receives 2.2 tonnes/cow of concentrates annually.
Mr Williams harvests 600-700t dry matter of pasture silage annually, mostly from a 72-hectare outblock. Periodically, he grows a sorghum crop to also harvest as silage.
Pastures are regularly fertilised and an annual chicory or turnip crop is followed by sowing to ryegrass, as part of the pasture renovation program.
"We get as much dry matter into the cows as we can," Mr Williams said.
The dryland farm has a fairly reliable rainfall pattern that averages 900 millimetres annually.
Forty per cent of the herd calves in autumn, beginning April 10; 60pc calve in spring, beginning at the start of July.
Joinings are by artificial insemination and the focus in recent years has been on lifting fertility by their choice of bulls, while maintaining their A2 status.
When the site for the robotic dairy was cleared, it included dismantling the dirt-floor shed that was used to raise calves. Last year, a dirt-floor machinery shed was converted so calves could be raised in 10 pens. Bedding in both sheds was traditionally woodchips.
Rather than dismantle the shed and dig up the concrete floor that housed the 44-unit rotary dairy, Mr and Mrs Williams decided it was ideal to retrofit for a dedicated calf-rearing shed.
"It had the hard floor, making it easy to clean, and already had electricity, water and the hot water system," Mrs Williams said.
"There was also a six-by-six metre area which we could use for washing up, preparing milk adding mineral additives on a nutritionist's advice and for keeping the trailer and buckets tidy."
During construction of the robotic dairy, piping was extended 25 metres across the yard to deliver milk from the vats and milking bays directly to the calf-rearing shed.
The computer system enables a particular cow's colostrum and milk to go to its calf, by the software system identifying the cow and sending the product through the pipes to a specific bucket. Staff are then alerted which bucket (one of three) is for which calf. The important function of the system is that a calf's identity is clearly linked to its mother. The system once the milk arrives in the calf-rearing shed is mostly manual labour. Most of the milk unless it is identified by the computer software as described above goes into a 250-litre storage tank, from where it is pumped into buckets that are carried to the pens.
Mr Williams also redesigned a trailer to carry milk and grain buckets and feeders to the paddock.
"If extra milk is required in the calf shed, we can just let the system know and the robot will send it over from the vat," Mrs Williams said.
"It's a function of the individual milking machines to be able to bypass the vat to send the milk directly to the calf shed, or pump milk from the vat, when needed."
Troughs for grain and water in each pen are checked and refilled at least twice daily.
Having the hot water system already installed means cleaning of buckets, troughs, milk feeders and teats is easily achieved.
Anchor points on the shed's side walls connect to the frame of each 12x18 metre pen, which mean they are robust but can be dismantled to easily clean the floor.
"We wanted the pens to be stable but portable, so it's easy to clean the shed. I can just go in with the tractor and scrape out the shed, then we can hose it down using the hot water system," Mr Williams said.
Rubber matting has been laid on the floor, with corn straw used as bedding.
Mrs Williams has noticed the calves prefer to lay on the corn straw, rather than the rubber matting.
"We're only on our first calving in the shed, so it's all a learning curve at the moment," Mr Williams said. "I hope to just top up the bedding. It's the first time we've had a calf shed where it's not a dirt floor. We've used wood chips in the past, so we'll see how this corn straw goes.
"The calves are moved on to the paddock while they're still young."
When the bedding is taken out of the shed, it goes onto the compost heap.
The farm business's calf-rearing policy is for calves to spend four weeks in pens in the shed, before going into paddocks.
In the shed pens, calves are usually housed in groups of five; when they move into the paddock, they are merged into groups of 10.
In the shed, calves are fed milk twice a day and have access to ad-lib water and pellets from day one. In the paddock, calves receive milk once a day, with ad-lib water, pellets, hay and pasture to graze.
"We bring them out to the paddocks, where they have shelter, once they're big enough usually at four weeks," Mr Williams said.
"Big calves make a big mess, so we want to have them out of the shed by then."
The calves are weaned at 12 weeks old, when several group are merged to become 30-40 head. The heifers are in paddocks and grain-fed until 15-months-old, when they are joined.
Bull calves are sold when young to a regular client list.
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