Attention to detail underpins calf performance

16 September 2020

Attention to detail with calf rearing is a high priority, especially when you run a successful breeding business.

Philip Halhead is the third generation of the Halhead family to farm at Norbreck Farm at Cockerham near Lancaster.  He not only runs a high genetic merit herd of 290 Holsteins supplying Arla Tesco but since 1999 has also established and grown Norbreck Genetics; a business focused on easy calving and superior calf quality to maximise returns from calf sales, particularly focusing on British Blue and Aberdeen Angus cattle.  The Norbreck Genetics business supports the Semex business in the UK and globally.  In addition they have developed a Holstein genomics investment programme to improve other key areas of dairy income.

The Halheads have invested heavily in high genetic merit families that are noted for high genomic indices, functional type and excellent health, fertility and milk quality.  They currently have 10 of the top 200 heifers in the UK ranked on PLI with more born over the summer.

Rearing heifers with IVF and embryo transfer is a large part of the genetics development.  They own heifers in the USA and ship embryos back to the home farm to implant into heifers here that are not as strong genetically.

“With calves of this quality it is paramount that they are well-reared,” Philip comments.  “We need calves well grown pre-weaning because we want them weighing 200kg at five months old when they go off to a nearby rearing unit. They stay here until they come back to calve at 24 months old.

“We follow strict protocols and have recently invested in a new calf rearing unit.”

The new calf shed measuring 90 feet by 40 feet with a 4 feet overhang has been designed to hold 60 calves housed in pairs or occasionally in groups of three depending on the number of calvings. The Agri Plastics pens were imported from the USA.

Particular attention has been paid to the environment and ventilation in the calf shed with an internal fan and tube system and Gale Breaker curtains to help with climate control.

Gavin Hill rears all the calves and follows strict protocols with the objectives of achieving consistent management and exploiting early growth potential.  He says it is good to have everything in one place. The new shed is much lighter than where calves were previously reared and that it makes it much easier to spot calves off colour sooner

Calves get four feeds of their dams colostrum with three litres per feed before moving onto milk replacer.  They are now fed Wynnstay Elixir which is an Energized Calf Milk developed by Trouw Nutrition GB.

Energized Calf Milk (ECM) uses whole milk as a biological reference and is specially formulated to ensure optimal nutrient supply on high feed rate systems.  ECM has 10% more metabolisable energy than a typical milk replacer. This is a big increase in energy, helping to exploit the exceptional growth potential of pre-weaned calves and set them up for life.

In addition, feeding pre-weaned calves on an elevated plane of nutrition offers a one-off window of opportunity for accelerated growth and development.  The pre-weaning period provides a unique chance to exploit the full genetic potential of calves.  Feeding calves a higher plane of quality nutrition will lead to an accelerated rate of growth and ECM has been specifically formulated to ensure that calves receives a balanced nutrient supply to ensure optimal development and support health of the calf.

Gavin starts the calves on six litres per day mixed at 135g/litre, gradually increasing this to 9 litres per day over two feeds, depending on the size and appetite of the individual calf.  All calves have access to ad-lib straw and fresh water which is changed daily.  They are offered ad lib Wynnstay Start & Wean calf nuts from day one.

“The shed has been very well thought out and designed, comments Wynnstay Calf and Youngstock Specialist Sammy Howorth.  “This is then complimented by Gavin’s eye for detail and management.

“Calves are fed young to old with a milk shuttle and teat buckets are washed and disinfected with Kilco Cyclex after every feed.  They are then left to dry upside down on shelving which has holes drilled to ensure they get air inside and drain properly.

“Weaning is at eight weeks old but Gavin uses his judgement and may delay weaning for some calves.  Calves are weaned over a week, gradually decreasing the quantity of milk but keeping the concentration the same.  They will be eating around 2kg/day of Start N Wean before milk is removed altogether, and will be drinking up to 10L/day of fresh water too

“All calves are weighed as they enter the shed and again when they leave and growth rates from birth to post-weaning are averaging almost 1kg/day, across sexed heifer calves and beef calves.”

Weaned calves are moved to another building at around 10 weeks old until they are ready to move to the rearing farm at five months old and weighing around 200kg.  When they leave the new shed the pens are dismantled, pressure washed and disinfected, again using Cyclex as it is licensed for the control of Cryptosporidiosis.  The pens will sit empty for a few days before being reused.

Over the summer the calves are bedded on shavings which are more absorbent than straw and help reduce fly nuisance.  However, straw will be used in the winter for warmth and comfort during the colder months.

Beef calves are reared on the same system but are sold at 4-5 weeks old.

Gavin Hill says the new building combined with strict protocols has made a big difference.  “The combination of improved ventilation, better drainage, improved cleaning regimes and a reduced pathogen load mean calves are keeping healthier.

 “The combination of healthier calves and the high-quality milk powder have helped us optimise pre-weaning growth rates and produce some really strong calves,” Philip Halhead comments. “Calf rearing is a real team approach here at Norbreck. From dry cow nutrition to colostrum collection, feeding the calf, hygiene practices and attention to detail, the whole team plays a part. We also make full use of the knowledge and expertise around us where possible.  We always welcome ideas and suggestions from our vet and Sammy Howorth who often have a really positive input.   

 “Over a 6month period, since moving to the new shed and changing to Wynnstay Elixir we have reduced antibiotic usage on the calves  by almost 50% with predictions that this can be nearer to 70-80% over a 12 month period.”