Dairy focus: Calf rearing to the highest of standards in Co. Cavan

In this week’s dairy focus we traveled to Killinkere, Co. Cavan, to visit Alan Clarke’s dairy farm whose attention to detail when it comes to calf rearing couldn’t be faulted.

After driving into Alan and his father Thomas’s farmyard, it was clear we were in for a treat. In the yard were impressive facilities for both calving and calf rearing and, as the saying goes, ‘you could eat your dinner off the ground’.

Milking on the farm is a herd of 148 Holstein-Friesian cows; but with a greater percentage of British-Friesian genetics through the herd as traditionally this was the preferred breed on the farm.

Along with the calf rearing protocol, what is also striking about this farm is the fertility performance. The herd has a calving interval of 365 days and, this year, a 3% empty rate was achieved – after a 10 and a half week breeding season.

So, it was with no surprise that the calving pattern was very compact with a six-week calving rate ranging between 85% and 90%. We were eager to find out how this was all managed.

The calf rearing protocol

Successful calf rearing for Alan begins with getting the cow ready for calving.

He ensures all his cows are at the correct body condition score (BCS) for calving, making sure they are up to date will all vaccines – including rotavec corrona, samonella and bovine viral diarrhoea (BVD) –  and ensures adequate pre-calving minerals are fed.

The dry cow management is key for the quality of colostrum produced by the cow.

Having sufficient labour for the spring is also very important to Alan. He said: “Labour is very important to keep the whole thing running well, clean and healthy; for consistency too.”

In the spring the labour consists of Alan, his father and a student – who is on the farm for four months, starting in February.

To reduce the workload in the spring, the herd is milked once-a-day (OAD) for the month of February and from five weeks old the calves are fed OAD too.

Not only does milking OAD reduce the workload, it gives you more time to focus on your cow and your calf.

The farm is completely spring-calving with cows going to grass a few weeks after calving – which begins on February 1.

“Once the calf is born everyone knows what the protocol is; that is important,” stressed Alan.

Immediately after birth the calf’s naval is dipped and he/she is tagged to avoid any mix-ups. The mother’s tag number, the calf’s tag number, the date along with the sex of the calf is then recorded down on a clipboard – which is left next to the calving area.

Following this, the calf is fed 3L of colostrum. Taking us through this procedure, Alan explained: “We always try to take the colostrum from the mother; but this is not always practical. If it isn’t, we always have colostrum on hand ready to feed.

If the cow calves during the night, if I am up I will feed the calf; if not, the calf will be fed first thing in the morning.

“We try to bottle feed as many of them as we can. The stomach tube is only used for difficult cases.

“But to be honest, most of them will take to the bottle if you give them the time. I’d rather give them the bottle because I feel it is more natural,” he added.

The calf is then left with the cow for 24 hours, before being moved to a single pen. The single pens are easily accessible from the calving area through a door at the back.

This allows for the efficient and stress-free movement of calves from the calving area to the calf pen.

Here, in single pens, they are bucket fed until they are about seven to 10 days old. They are then moved on to group pens.

In addition, once they enter the single pens they are immediately offered meal along with straw and fresh water daily. This is offered all the way up to weaning, when straw is then swapped for grass.

Along with straw and meal, they are fed 2.5L of transition milk per feed – for the first few days – and are then moved onto whole milk.

At 14 days old they are moved onto milk replacer. This is fed at a rate of 750g/calf/day, mixed with 3L of water per feed. At five weeks old they begin to be fed OAD.

Moreover, after they leave the single pens, the bulls and heifers are separate. The heifers move to a shed adjacent to where the single pens are located and the bulls move to another shed – which is away from the heifers calves, but easily accessible for buyers.

“They are then grouped according to age and no more than 10 calves go into a pen,” explained Alan.

At the back of where the heifer calves are housed is a pad. This can be accessed through a door from the heifer group pens. The pad is well fenced and bedded with bark mulch.

“The calves are allowed out to the pad when the weather begins to improve; usually at the end of March. They can come in and out at their leisure; this helps to get them accustomed to being outside,” explained Alan.

Pad for calves

At 11 weeks old we begin to wean them. At that stage they are off the pad and out at grass; but they are still being fed meal.

“We don’t weigh them, but we assess them ourselves and if any calf is unfit she will be dropped back a pen. Also, at this stage they must be eating between 1kg to 1.5kg of meal per calf,” said Alan.

Hygiene

It was clear from the visit that hygiene was a hugely important aspect of the calf rearing process. Everywhere was impeccably clean.

“Hygiene is number one; if you get that right everything else will work with it. A clean dry bed is critical for the cows and the calves. You want to be able to lie down in the shed yourself,” he joked.

Homemade sink used for washing equipment

Not only are the facilities kept to a high standard, all the buckets, feeders and calving equipment are washed and disinfected regularly.

“When the student arrives I say to them leave this place as you found it. So, before they leave all the sheds are cleaned out, power washed and disinfected with Kenocox, ready to go for the following spring,” highlighted Alan.

Management of bull calves

The bulls and heifers are managed completely the same from birth, until the bulls are sold off the farm. The only difference is they are housed in different areas.

All the heifer calves are reared on farm for replacements and the bulls are sold to local farmers and for export at three weeks old.

Housing facilities for bull calves

“Over the years we have found that there is less of a demand locally for calves. The age profile of farmers means some of them just aren’t able to take them on anymore and the poor beef prices aren’t helping.

“As well as that, last year the boats were going, then they weren’t going, and then you were waiting on a text to say they were going again.

You have to be ready for that; you have to have the space and labour to deal with that.

Making a final comment, he said: “I always seem to get more bulls than heifers; so next year I’m going to try sexed semen.

“Then maybe I could get enough heifers quicker and use more beef bulls. Hopefully, at that stage, there would be more of a market for them.

“But, farmers will keep coming back to a farm when they know the farm and they know the farmer is doing a good job. They know then what they are getting.”

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