50% of the way there in Co. Mayo

As a lot of other industries and professions wind down amid the Covid-19 pandemic, it is quite the opposite on livestock farms across the island of Ireland – whether that be calving cows, lambing ewes or sourcing and rearing stock for calf-to-beef systems.

Now in the second year of the Teagasc Green Acres Calf to Beef Programme, Austin and Jarleth Ruane – a Mayo-based father-and-son team – have made a number of significant changes to their dairy calf-to-beef operation located in Claremorris.

Firstly, the breed of the calf and the source of origin have been adjusted. This time last year, the services of a calf dealer were employed to supply the Ruanes with Aberdeen Angus, Friesian and Friesian-cross Jersey bull calves.

As a result, calves which ended up on the holding were sourced from up to 27 different herds in various locations across the country. This provided many obstacles for Jarlath in terms of calf health, mortality and reduced animal performance.

So, over the last couple of months, Jarleth has made an agreement to source 60 calves – at two-to-three weeks-of-age – from two local dairy farmers. One unit is located a short, 10 minute journey from the home farm, while the other dairy enterprise is located 30 minutes away.

The genetic makeup of the calves have also changed somewhat. Jersey-sired calves are no longer sourced, with Jarleth opting for Holstein Friesian, Aberdeen Angus and the addition of the Hereford breed.

In terms of prices, Holstein Friesian bull calves have been bought for €50-60/head, while the Angus and Hereford bulls cost €135 on average.

By this arrangement, Jarleth can view the facilities on the dairy farms and be confident that calves have received the correct amount of colostrum at birth, and that they have been well looked after in the early stages of life.

As both Jarleth and Austin work off-farm during the week, calves are collected from the dairy holdings on a Saturday morning, with 32 calves sourced to date.

While the number of sources of the 2019 spring-born calves created some issues, so too did the calf-housing facilities on the Mayo-based farm, with problems related to inadequate ventilation and overcrowding the most troublesome.

However, these problems are a distant memory this year, as the Ruanes constructed a single, four-bay calf unit with space sheeting and doors at either end which can be opened on ‘clammy’, humid days to boost airflow.

This airflow removes noxious gases, pathogen concentration and stagnant air, while providing the optimum ambient temperature.

Jarleth – who designed the building himself – has also created micro-environments, with 4ft sheets of plywood, for the calves which they can lie under; infrared lights are located overhead. They also protect the calves from draughts.

These structures along with an adequate amount of straw bedding help to keep the calves at the correct temperature of 15-20º.

Under the straw bedding, there is a 1:20 sloped floor to an awaiting drain that provides adequate drainage which, Jarleth says, has made a huge difference to the dryness of the bed. The straw bedding is cleaned out fortnightly.

“The shed has proved a huge success with no disease problems this year so far, with the exception of one calf that didn’t transition from whole milk to milk replacer that easily; apart from that, it has been trouble-free,” he said.

Changes to the feeding system have also taken place with the installation of an automatic feeder, which provides calves with 2L of milk replacer three times per day (6L/day). Calves are also offered calf pencils and straw.

“There is huge difference to the calves on the feeder. They are quieter, more settled and more relaxed. I also see that they have taken to the straw and concentrates faster,” Jarleth noted.

A vaccination programme is implemented alongside the good calf rearing practices, with calves vaccinated against pneumonia and IBR after they are allowed settle into their new environment.

A clean, fresh supply of water is available at all times also. While the Ruanes have installed an automatic feeder, this does not allow for reduced monitoring and calves are walked through many times per day.

As calves get older, there is scope to allow them to spend a period of time in a nearby paddock when weather and grazing conditions allow.

For a complete guide on sourcing and rearing dairy calves for beef production, check out the Calf Health and Management Series.