Attention to detail key for calf rearer

Attention to detail key for calf rearer

Herd Management
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Little Lady Calf Rearing got underway in February, with a commitment to raise 280 autumn calves to 12 weeks old for three clients.

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Mandy McIvor said it's important to feed colostrum to the calves for their first two feedings.

Mandy McIvor said it's important to feed colostrum to the calves for their first two feedings.

PIVOTING into a new business venture was not uncommon during 2020, as people assessed their lives and future directions.

During the height of the pandemic last year, Mandy McIvor moved back to Gippsland in Victoria, after running a business interstate focused on animal health and welfare.

Settling on a small farm at Neerim South, in West Gippsland, Ms McIvor's next step was finding work.

She worked in the dairy industry as a young woman and had the skills from running her own business interstate.

"I started working on a dairy farm, and working with the calves I realised how much I enjoyed that work," Ms McIvor said.

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The genesis of a business idea began, and after some market research, and with a business plan developed, Little Lady Calf Rearing was registered.

"I started canvassing farmers about contract rearing calves and immediately received two confirmed clients," Ms McIvor said.

"I rear calves for dairy farmers for their herd and on behalf of farmers for the export heifer trade.

"I also provide a service looking after calves from weaning to point-of-calving."

Mandy McIvor is trialling the overnight use of coats for calves in their first couple of days.

Mandy McIvor is trialling the overnight use of coats for calves in their first couple of days.

Little Lady Calf Rearing got underway in February this year, with a commitment to raise 280 autumn calves to 12 weeks old for three clients.

"We raised 110 calves on one dairy farm and 92 on another, and 78 on our farm for another client," Ms McIvor said.

In the autumn calf team, Ms McIvor worked full time and employed a casual worker for 25-30 hours weekly, and another casual worker to back-fill. Coming into spring calving, the team is growing.

"Going into spring, I feel we need another full-time permanent employee, apart from myself," Ms McIvor said in July.

"I've just sourced another casual employee to train, who starts at the beginning of August. I anticipate that by the end of the year, I'll need two more workers for the calf-rearing team. And our after-care program will mean retaining them long term."

Heifers on grain in the paddock, as part of the after-care package.

Heifers on grain in the paddock, as part of the after-care package.

Biosecurity and traceability

A big part of calf rearing, as any dairy farmer knows, is disease control, and the Australian Dairyfarmer asked how Ms McIvor manages this.

"We tie everything we do into the farm's biosecurity plan," she said.

First and foremost, before agreeing to take on a client, Ms McIvor undertakes a farm audit to understand what past disease issues the farmer has encountered and how they were managed.

It is the farmer's responsibility to prepare the calf shed, with cleaning, liming, and any other hygiene measures such as disinfectant. It is also the farmer's responsibility to lay down the woodchips.

"Then we come in and set up the pens and gates, and get everything ready to receive the calves," Ms McIvor said.

If a farmer sends calves to Ms McIvor's farm for raising, she provides the calf shelters and other equipment needed to rear the cattle in dedicated paddocks.

George Fruin works alongside Mandy McIvor at Little Lady Calf Rearing.

George Fruin works alongside Mandy McIvor at Little Lady Calf Rearing.

A full set of personal protection equipment, including boots, is stored at each farm for each team member. A dedicated car park area and access ways are identified and used on each farm.

"At the end of the shift, the PPE gets washed and put away for the next shift," Ms McIvor said. "We use dedicated handwashing and boot-washing areas.

"We also complete a daily clean of equipment after every feed session. In the first fortnight of the calf's life, everything it uses gets cleaned with hot water.

"After the calf is two weeks old, all the feeding equipment gets rinsed daily and cleaned with hot water every week.

"I've found that method helps build the calf's resilience."

Her work is confined to the calf sheds and dedicated paddock area. On each farm, a pen is set aside for the farmer or farm worker to deposit newborn calves daily. After the calf arrives, Ms McIvor's team begins its care.

"Every farm has its own calf books, and we benchmark our care against their history," she said.

"Each calf gets colostrum at the first two feedings after it enters the shed. We ensure they get the colostrum either by tube or bottle feeding.

"We've noticed this resulted in zero disease among the calves we've raised."

A finely ground calf muesli is fed to the calves.

A finely ground calf muesli is fed to the calves.

Ongoing feeding includes mixing fortified powder into the milk from the vat and feeding a finely ground baby calf muesli.

"At four to five weeks old, I start transitioning them to grain in small quantities," Ms McIvor said. "That enables us to monitor how much they're eating and the transition period avoids acidosis later on."

As well as everyone involved abiding by a code of conduct, Ms McIvor provides contracts that clearly identify what she believes are the minimum requirements of what a calf should be fed and the environmental conditions for its welfare.

"If they're a paddock-reared calf, the contract outlines the minimum energy the calves need to grow and their additional nutrition needed for weather conditions," Ms McIvor said.

"For shed rearing calves, the contract identifies what the dairy industry requires for adequate nutrition and growth, plus any additional recommendations I have around disease control."

Diligent recordkeeping includes all the data around feeding, any medications administered, and growth rates.

"We collect the data to feed back into improving the on-farm system at the farmer's next calving season," she said.

Farmers are responsible for cleaning the sheds and laying down woodchips. Little Lady Calf Rearing then sets up the pens and gates and gets everything ready for receiving calves.

Farmers are responsible for cleaning the sheds and laying down woodchips. Little Lady Calf Rearing then sets up the pens and gates and gets everything ready for receiving calves.

As a trial for winter/spring calving this year, Ms McIvor began providing newborn calves with a thermal jacket.

"We put jackets on the calves for overnight for the first night or two," she said.

"I find the calves are a lot more robust and active on their second day. I thought it would be a good way for them to retain energy and they should grow bigger quicker."

She has also identified it as another tool to improve the survival rates of premature calves.

With spring calving underway, Ms McIvor retained her clients from autumn and took on a new client - a dairy farmer from Colac, Vic, whose herd calves year-round. He has contracted her business to raise his calves on her own farm.

"He will deliver 50-80 calves every six weeks, year-round," she said.

Calves drinking from the Milkbar in the paddock.

Calves drinking from the Milkbar in the paddock.

Positive production outcomes

Ms McIvor has identified a dedicated three-week weaning process reduces production loss in the calf, as it transitions from its milk and muesli rations to eating grain and grazing pasture for its energy and growth requirements.

"The whole system is about meeting demand feeding with liveweight gains, including building the heifers' mammary glands," she said.

"As a first-year in-milk heifer, they should be producing as much as a three or four-year milking cow.

"We also focus on ensuring healthy and strong feet and hoofs on the heifers."

In late winter, there were 240 heifers in the after-care program, designed for raising heifers post-weaning, 12 weeks to 18 months.

The after-care program includes daily checking the cattle, drenching, animal health care and organising veterinary care.

Weighed at the end of July, five-month-old Holstein heifers topped out at 250 kilograms and 12-week-old Holstein heifers were 200kg.

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