Strict control key for calf rearing

Strict control key for calf rearing

Herd Management
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Strict control over access, nutrition and record-keeping, as well as weather protection for calves pays off.

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Fiona Mills raises nearly 600 calves each year.

Fiona Mills raises nearly 600 calves each year.

TWO farms, two dairy platforms, two split-calving milking herds, and growing out heifers, steers and bulls on two outblocks.

Frank and Fiona Mills manage all this on their two irrigated dairy farms at Kilmany, in Gippsland, Victoria.

While the herds are milked and managed separately, apart from after they're dried off, all the calves are raised by Mrs Mills on the home farm.

Strict control over access, nutrition and record-keeping, as well as weather protection for the calves and networking among other, local, calf-rearing dairy farmers, pays off in minimal health issues.

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Management begins at joining. Mrs Mills is a qualified artificial insemination technician, which makes it easy to do AI joining at morning and afternoon milking. That's 360 cows on the home farm and 222 cows on the second farm, for autumn and spring calving.

The largely British Friesian herd has two AI chances before spending time with a British Friesian bull. About 80 per cent of heifers are joined to British Friesian bulls. About 20 per cent of heifers are joined to a Jersey bull. No heifers receive AI.

Last year, Mrs Mills also bought several three-way Angus straws to inseminate the 20 Normande cows still in the herd.

"We don't want to keep the Normande progeny to milk, so we're crossing those cow bloodlines with beef, using the ABS InFocus Beef on Dairy Program," she said.

"Each straw contains semen from three proven high-fertility Angus bulls. We're using it deliberately to promote our steer-breeding program. We've got the first progeny on the ground this season.

"We're also selling Jersey-Friesian-cross heifers before they calve."

The couple breed their own British Friesian bulls to use in the herd and sell some to other farmers. They also buy stud British Friesian bulls.

Record keeping of every activity on the farm is critical to their success. That includes calf rearing. Mrs Mills is solely responsible for calf rearing and she likes it like that.

Using sexed semen a couple of years ago, while it didn't radically increase the number of heifers born, appears to have paid off longer term.

"Those heifers that are the progeny of sexed semen a couple of years ago have calved this season," Mrs Mills said.

"They're throwing more heifers this year, with their first calves.

"I'll be keeping an eye on that, to see if that line throws more heifers in successive years.

"It's too early to tell yet if the sexed semen makes a difference."

A milk-bar is used for feeding the calves their milk once they are out of the pens and into paddocks.

A milk-bar is used for feeding the calves their milk once they are out of the pens and into paddocks.

She will also compare the results of spring 2021 with autumn calving for that run of heifers.

The dairy cows stay at the Kilmany home farm from six weeks before their due date. Three weeks before due date, they begin transition feeding. The heifers, located on an outblock at Perry Bridge, also begin transition feeding three weeks before their due date.

Calves are born in the paddock and collected once a day, when the cows are brought in for afternoon milking.

"We immediately paint their mum's number on the side of each calf," Mrs Mills said.

It's a strategy that has proven itself time and again. When Mrs Mills gets time to record the calf's birth, she relates it to the cow's or heifer's number, and cross-checks that against the bull or semen used.

At the same time, she can also record that the calf has received its first four litres of colostrum, and a mix of iodine and methylated spirits has been sprayed onto the calf's naval.

The bull calves are kept alongside the heifer calves, initially in groups of five.

"The group of five calves are no more than three days apart in age," Mrs Mills said.

Colostrum is fed to each calf by bottle for four days. By day six, all going well, each calf will be drinking five-to-six litres of milk once-a-day; with adlib access from day one to water. Their milk is fortified with 150g of Lactafarm CMR Elite milk powder.

"The Lactafarm Elite powder added to their milk makes them grow," Mrs Mills said.

"They're getting higher protein and fat with the powder in their milk; therefore, they're effectively drinking more milk."

Calves are moved from the pens into calf-raising paddocks until they are 10 months old.

Calves are moved from the pens into calf-raising paddocks until they are 10 months old.

By day six, the calves have adlib access to pea pollard, bought in truckloads from Southern Stockfeeds.

"We've been using the pea pollard for about 10 years," Mrs Mills said. "It's very fine and easy for them to lick up and swallow."

When they are three weeks old, she moves the calves into small paddocks in groups of 20-35, and uses the calf milk-bar, towed by the quad bike, to feed them milk out of the vat. She continues to fortify the milk with Lactafarm powder. The calves continue to have adlib access to water and pea pollard and straw and hay.

The calves are de-horned and vaccinated by four weeks. From 100kg, she starts weaning the calves, over a four-week period.

"I start weaning them by reducing the additional powder in their milk," Mrs Mills said.

"They need milk for 12 weeks. By the end of four weeks' weaning, they're 120kg and effectively drinking water."

Once weaned, the calves are mobbed-up and graze pasture, plus straw or a silage mix, on the Kilmany home farm.

Bull calves, if not used for joining, are castrated at between six-to-12 months, using Trisolfen, then grown out to two-three-year-old steers before going to market.

Pure British Friesian heifers are retained for the herd.

When they are about 10-months-old, heifers, steers and bulls are moved to the Perry Bridge property or onto an outblock at Kilmany, to grow out.

The steers are grown out to two-three-year-olds. The heifers are joined based on visual condition, general health, and width of hips, to calve as 2.5-year-olds.

"I'd sooner wait before joining and have the heifer longer in the paddock than have her miss getting back into calf next time," Mrs Mills said.

Calf shed purpose built

The calf pens were built using recycled materials, with open fronts and an easterly aspect to capture the sun.

The calf pens were built using recycled materials, with open fronts and an easterly aspect to capture the sun.

The purpose-built calf shed has an open-air front, with an easterly sun aspect. Metal walls and gates were recycled to build the 16 pens. Rice hulls are used for bedding, over gravel and lime.

The rice hulls are scraped out at the end of use, each calf season. The manured hulls are composted and used on garden beds, in the orchard and spread on paddocks.

"We use the tractor and bucket to clean out the pens, then get in to each pen with a rake to really clean out the corners," Mrs Mills said.

"I let the ground dry out, and let the UV light into the pens for several weeks.

"Everything gets a deep clean at the end of each calving season.

"Daily I wash out the feeders and teats with cold water, but at the end of each calving season, I dismantle the feeders and scrub them and the teats in hot soapy water.

"I've noticed I get healthier calves all round as a result of that practice."

Rice hulls are used for bedding in the calf-raising pens.

Rice hulls are used for bedding in the calf-raising pens.

Stalosan F, an EPA-registered dry germicide in powder form, is used for sterilising bedding. Mrs Mills distributes a couple of handfuls of the powder across the floor of each pen.

She uses a five per cent hydrogen peroxide spray to clean the walls of each pen, gates and fencing, and the calf feeders; and puts about 10 millilitres per five litres of water into the drinking water each day.

By day three, Mrs Mills doesn't enter a calf pen, unless the animal is ill.

"I adhere to hygiene rules, washing my hands and hosing off my boots," she said.

Kilmany, in central Gippsland, can experience cold, wet winters, which can exacerbate zoonotic diseases. Mrs Mills said she noticed fewer respiratory illnesses in calves born in the drier, autumn period.

"These practices make a big difference to combatting cryptosporidium," she said.

She also ensures that sick calves are moved into an individual pen for the period of their care. That pen, and the pen they were removed from, is deep-cleaned.

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