Hands-on efforts deliver better calf health
Susie Hann, her husband Martin and son Ryan are dairying near Frome, Somerset. With the wider team, Andy, Jake and Ellie, as well as Martin’s parents, the team are robotic milking 220 pedigree Holsteins on a liquid milk contract. British Dairying catches up with Susie, who gives us an insight into their calf rearing.
Herd average: 10,000 kgs;
Herd vaccinated for BVD, IBR, Leptospirosis, Rotavirus.
BVD Vaccinated, Monitored, Free. Tag and Test all calves.
Red Tractor Accredited Dairy, Beef and Lamb
Previously involved in the show circuit and bred the first cow to win the Supreme Championship of the South West Dairy event two years running. Also had Supreme Champion at the Royal Bath and West Show and the Devon County Show.
Ellie has just been awarded Apprentice of the Year by Wiltshire College.
Rodden Down Farm has seen some change over the last few years, with a healthy focus on management, staffing, buildings, and animal health. A robust and cooperative team combining multi-generational family members as well as long-term full-time employees is seeing success with pedigree Holsteins and the replacement calves they are breeding.
Using Holstein AI sexed semen – with a backstop in the shape of their Hereford stock bull – Susie rears all of their calves. Heifers move into the milking herd, with the majority of beef and bull calves sold into the Meadow Quality scheme, and a percentage reared to finished beef on farm.
A rigorous approach to colostrum take-up has seen the team do things a little differently. Susie explains “All our calves stay with their dams until they are three days old. We have been working closely with our vet and take part in a scheme where the vet screens passive transfer of colostrum to ensure the calves are off to a flying start. Our preference is to not use any bagged colostrum, but we do have frozen on hand, from our herd, if needed to boost weaker calves.”
This focus on calf health started following the install of Deleval robots as part of a wider upgrade to the parlour building. In comparison to the jokingly named “cow palace”, the calf housing fared less well, and when a winter storm ripped the roof off the shed, Susie and the team recognised that the next step on the business plan was to upgrade the calf housing.
“Upgrading our calf housing was always on the plan but the storm damage moved that along a little quicker than expected. We’d also experienced levels of scours that we wanted to manage down, so it was a logical next step to improve the housing. We quickly settled on the idea of calf hutches, with advice from others and research, not only for the health benefits but also from a practical perspective we had an area of sloped hard standing that is in the shelter of buildings and trees, but also the benefit of a south-westerly blowing up through the valley which helps with ventilation.”
Calves come off their dams at 3 days and go into spacious Calf-Tel XXL hutches in pairs. In line with the focus on health, a milk taxi with transponder reads the front of each hutch supplies the correct amount of milk for the age of calf, in individual bottles attached to the hutch fence.
“We add new calves to the end of the double row of 25 hutches, with the youngest on the end. They start on 2.2L twice a day, increasing on a curve in line with age to 3.5L twice a day and then weaned off on a downward curve as agreed with the vet. The calves get ad lib cake from day one in the hutches, plus hay cut from old pasture on the farm.” says Susie. “When the temperature drops below 10 degrees the calves have jackets on to ensure they are not using valuable energy to keep warm instead of to grow.”
After weaning, calves are moved into MultiMax hutches in groups of four, until they are four months old, and from there indoor in groups of eight until around 6 months when they are moved onto a total mixed ration in a larger group. Hutches are steam cleaned and dried then moved to a different spot before the next calves arrive.
Calf health has improved through each age stage for a myriad of reasons, not least because of the increased human interaction with the calves.
“While we do spend more time feeding and bedding down as the hutches are numerous compared to a single shed; the interaction we get with the calves each day makes it far easier to spot anyone that is a little off colour, and catch clinical signs of illness far more quickly. That combined with the hutches being warm but well ventilated, as they are sited with the back of the hutch to the prevailing wind, plus the concrete under the pens and hardcore under the outdoor fence means they are a lot dryer than a shed. Levels of scours has reduced significantly, as has pneumonia, although we do vaccinate against pneumonia. Overall, the calves are looking more robust than ever. The work is worth it!”
Susie does share that they plan to remove the hardcore under the fences, and replace with concrete to make the yards easier to keep clean and reduce any bacterial and viral load. Further down the track is a plan to take advantage of the current Animal Health and Welfare Grants to add a barn roof over the current hutch area, to keep off the worst of the winter weather as rainfall levels continue to increase.