By Debbie James

Investing in a dedicated calf rearing unit is improving heifer performance at a 750-cow dairy farm.

The Jones family had been milking 300 cows at Nantgoch Farm, Oswestry, when they designed their original calf housing system but, as the herd expanded, overstocking was compromising calf health.

Calves were succumbing to pneumonia, cryptosporidium, scours and mycoplasma and this had repercussions for growth rates.

“We had outgrown the set-up,’’ says Matthew Jones, who farms with his parents, Bryn and Bev.

“When we had an outbreak of illness it would spread rapidly and we would get a lot of sick calves.’’

The family has now replaced those facilities with a purpose-built 60-pen shed – a system which they say provides an exceptional healthy environment for the baby calves and a very pleasant area to work in.

It housed approximately 786 between April 2018 and March 2019 - 276 dairy heifer replacements, 145 dairy bull calves and 365 Aberdeen Angus-cross beef calves – with calf mortality now at less than 2 per cent.

The building cost in the region of £50,000 and was the opposite of housing they had seen operating on other farms, where large numbers of calves were housed in very small areas which had also previously been the case at Nantgoch.

“We wanted a shed that would be excellent for calf health and excellent for the calf rearer,’’ says Matthew.

“With the help of our vet, Rob Edwards, of Cain Farm Vets, and Ken Nordlund of the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine, who is an expert in calf housing, we have achieved that.’’

The open steel-frame building is south-facing and has been built on a greenfield site leased from a neighbour, positioned away from cows to prevent calves sharing air space with older cattle.

Cows are managed in an intensive housed system with some grazing for dry cows and youngstock.

The herd is milked three times a day in a 50-point rotary parlour, yielding 11,200 litres per cow annually at 3.83 per cent butterfat and 3.30 per cent protein.

It is an all-year round calving system so the calf shed is in use for 12 months of the year.

The dimensions of each calf pen allows 24 foot of floor space for every calf.

The building has been designed to allow good ventilation – a ventilation tube forces air into the shed and a six-inch open roof ridge with a three-inch gap acts as a chimney for air to circulate.

The multi-wall polycarbonate plastic panels that are used to divide the pens are easy to clean – they are very simple to remove and can be cleaned on either side in just a few minutes.

Bev is responsible for calf rearing and Matthew describes her attention to detail as exceptional.

Calves are fed two three-litre feeds of colostrum at a minimum of 22 per cent on the BRIX scale in the first 12 hours of life.

All colostrum is tested for quality using a refractometer. “For the next four feeds we offer two litres of second milking colostrum,’’ Bev explains.

“From the sixth feed the dairy heifers receive four litres a day of an energiser milk replacer which is made up of skimmed milk, whey powder and vegetable oil at 25 per cent fat and oil and 22.50 per cent crude protein. This is fed over two feeds.’’

The volume increases to a maximum of eight litres a day at two and a half weeks. Clean water and coarse calf mix are also provided.

At three to four weeks old, calves are moved out of the shed to a recently constructed youngstock barn where they stay in their group of 12.

The coarse mix is replaced with an 18 per cent pellet.

When the youngest is seven weeks old, the process of weaning that group begins with milk volume reduced to six litres a day.

“From week eight it is gradually reduced to complete weaning by week 10,’’ says Bev.

“The aim is to have them off milk and eating around 2.5kg to 3kg of 18 per cent concentrate by 10 weeks, and ad lib straw, which they are offered from day one.’’