Rearing healthy, well-grown dairy heifers is a top priority for John Baggs at West Mill Farm, near Wareham, Dorset, as these animals are said to lay the foundations for everything that follows.
Running the 270-head milking herd as part of his family’s 324-hectare (800-acre) enterprise, he says getting the rearing right gives the best chance of achieving high conception rates to sexed semen and calving at 24 months.
The rearing process itself begins at the moment of birth and Mr Baggs has made two recent investments to improve the outcome at precisely this point.
He says: “We fitted a camera in the calving pen over a year ago and it has made a massive difference.
With a smartphone app and 4G internet across the whole farm, we can check calvings remotely all day and at any time of night.
“I live two miles from the farm, so I check everything before I go home and then again on the app at 9pm.
I may then set my alarm for midnight to check anything expected to calve is okay.
“This leaves very few hours before they are seen again at the time of morning milking, and the whole thing has made a massive improvement to our stillbirth rate.” Aspiration This has now declined to 4%, although the aspiration is that it will continue on its downward trend.
Another recent purchase which has had a profound impact on neonatal calves has been the farm’s introduction of a colostrum thawer.
Mr Baggs says: “This has allowed us to thaw and feed colostrum of known quality within half-an-hour, rather than wait for the mother to be milked or for a slower thaw.” The only colostrum saved comes from cows of known high health which has been checked with a Brix refractometer, which gives a good approximation of antibody levels and milk solids.
This ensures the calf receives the nutrition and antibodies she needs, ideally within two hours of birth.
This is by far the best time for her to absorb antibodies into the bloodstream, so optimising her immunity and ongoing health.
An unexpected knock-on benefit has been the young calf’s acceptance of the teat, which Mr Baggs says he has noticed is far better when she is fed within less than two hours of birth.
He says: “If you do not get to the calf until it is a few hours older, it may have sucked, had the edge taken off its appetite and not be interested in drinking milk from the teat.
“Teat feeding is what they are designed to do and I would much rather achieve this than have to tube.” Ann Coombes, youngstock specialist with ForFarmers, is in full agreement, and says: “Teat feeding is so much more natural for the calf and, if you choose to tube, there is a chance you might not feed the milk in the correct place.
“The sucking action also stimulates closure of the oesophageal groove, which ensures milk ends up in the abomasum and not in the rumen, where it would be fermented and cause rumen acidosis.”