Halton Farms, based near Congleton in cheshire is a year-round calving farm. Faced with a hefty bill for rearing replacement heifer calves, Karen and tom halton have taken the future of their dairy replacements into their own hands.
“It’s almost impossible to find people who will take care of your animals the same way you do,” says Karen Halton of Halton Farms based near Congleton in Cheshire.
Two years ago, Karen and her husband, Tom, were footing a hefty bill of £14,000 a month to rear replacement heifer calves from their 530-head herd of ProCROSS dairy cows.
“Not only was it very expensive, but it wasn’t being done to our standards,” Karen says. “And these calves are the future of our farm – they have to be made a priority. Our livelihood depends on it.”
a Strong start for dairy and beef calves
Currently, the year-round calving farm, which AI services 50 percent of its cows to fertility plus semen, and the other 50 percent to ProCROSS sexed semen, takes a no-nonsense approach to its calf rearing unit. According to Karen, dairy heifer calves and beef calves are managed differently to suit their future roles. However, both are given a strong foothold for a healthy start to life with a priority on biosecurity and colostrum intake.
“It’s in our management plan to eradicate Johne’s Disease from our herd and at calving we keep all positive cows separate from clean cows,” Karen says. “We also have a dedicated calving pen. Once cows begin the calving process, they are moved into the pen to calve, which is then completely disinfected after each use.”
Once calved, cows are allowed to lick their calves clean and any dampness leftover is dried away. All calves are bottle fed four litres within the first hour of being born, or approximately 10 percent of its body weight, with colostrum milked from the dam after it has been tested with a refractometer.
“The standard protocol for the dairy calves is to only bottle feed colostrum,” Karen says.
“Occasionally one refuses to suck, so we will have to stomach tube it. However, a trick I have is to mix in electrolytes with the colostrum when they won’t take it. The sweetness makes them more likely to suck and the electrolytes fire them up.”
Post colostrum feeding, beef calves are removed from their dam and placed in a pen with one to two other beef calves and teat fed Volac Blossom milk powder for a week. This trains them to nipple feed before being moved to a larger pen of five calves to ad-lib feed off a milk warmer. Their stay at Halton Farms is relatively short since a beef calf buyer comes once a week to take the three-week old calves.
Dairy heifer calves are moved into a training pen post colostrum bottle feeding, where they are trained on to Volac’s Förster Technik Vario Smart Feeder, which feeds them up to 10 litres of milk per day. For the first week, calves are kept in the training pen and fed Volac Heiferlac powder before being transitioned to a larger group.
“This machine has been pivotal to our replacement heifer rearing programme. Calves wear collars with sensors that track how much and how many times they are feeding. All this data can then be tracked on the Calf App on the iPad so I can monitor calf performance from the other side of the farm, my kitchen or even on holiday via the CalfCloud,” Karen says. “Intake decreases and less feeder visits often signals the early stages of an ill calf before we can physically see it. These calves go through a lot during their first few weeks of life –from being moved twice shortly after being born, the change from colostrum to powder and socialisation with other calves, making it essential we keep a close eye on their health.”
Along with data tracking, which also includes daily liveweight gain, the machine takes pressure off the labour intensities of rearing calves, with the ability to feed 120 calves at a time and self-clean and self-calibrate. It also weans calves based on the farm’s age-based weaning programme; downward step feeding starts at day 21 before calves are weaned at 56 days of age.
The perfect dairy cow
Along with developing their own calf rearing unit, the Halton’s have also been on the journey of breeding the perfect dairy cow by transitioning their herd to ProCROSS. This three-way composite breed of Swedish Red, Montbéliarde and Holstein genetics is keeping a significant amount of money in the business, says Tom.
“When we started the transition, people would tell me we’d lose the value of the cows. But at the end of the day, what you sell them for isn’t relevant. We’re looking at the big picture in terms of production,” says Tom. “Because of the cross, we get the genetic benefits of heterosis, which is the uplift of positive traits passed down to progeny.”
According to him, while they are milking at 9,500 litres a year, the big pay-out is the increase in fertility and heifers reaching average calving age at 23 months.
“In 2010, our pregnancy rate was at 22 percent. And today we are at 30 percent,” he says. “The breed more than pays for itself with more calves on the ground. The increase in fertility alone is worth £44,000 a year. No one see’s that money – we’re not getting a cheque for it. But it’s also not leaving the farm.”
While their breeding programme gives calves the genetic opportunity to go on and perform well, both Tom and Karen say this wouldn’t be possible without proper calf management in the rearing stage.
“Their health, their nutrition – all of this directly correlates into how they perform later in life,” Karen says. “Not only are we giving our calves a strong start, but the ability to reach their genetic potential.”
A focus on health
“There are a lot of happy cows in here,” Karen says as she walks through Halton Farms main cow shed. High ceilings, wide passage ways and daily cleaned sand beds are just one of the components to the operation’s herd health programme.
Calves, which are housed in a dry, well ventilated building, are given clean straw beds in small batch pens that are disinfected between use. At 7-10 days of age, an intranasal is administered to help protect against respiratory disease. They are also later vaccinated against BVD, leptospirosis, IBR and Salmonella.
“We also pull groups of calves at random to test their immunoglobulin levels to make sure they are receiving adequate passive transfer from colostrum,” explains Karen.
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