For Devon producers Ian and Cath Ratcliffe, ensuring heifers calve at 24 months of age is vital considering heifers need to calve at the front of the herd’s 10-week autumn calving block.

With this in mind every step is geared towards maximising calf health and weight gains. This includes close attention to transition cow management, colostrum feeding, hygiene and heifer health.

Ian and Cath farm 360 cows at West Webbery Farm near Bideford, and run a three way cross to Holstein, Friesian and Swedish Red. This year the 7,700 litre herd calved from 4 August to 17 October. The Ratcliffes aim to keep this block as tight and as front loaded as possible.

The team at West Webbery believes getting enough good quality colostrum into calves as soon as possible after birth is key to getting heifers off to a good start and on track to calve in at 24 months.

Cath explains: “If you want strong heifers that are able to meet their production potential and are long lasting, you need to invest in the first few hours.”

The farm’s vet, Dr Fiona Dolan from Torch Farm Vets, says adhering to the four Qs of colostrum management; Quality, Quantity, Quickly and Quietly, is part of ensuring heifers are big enough to calve in at 24 months old, which is the most cost effective.

“Recent research says age of first calving (AFC) is the number one influencer on rearing costs. For example, industry studies suggest that if you can reduce your AFC from 26 months to 24 months you can cut your rearing costs by more that 10%. With the national average AFC running at about 28 months it’s likely that many dairy units could save even more,” she explains.

HITTING target AFC is a primary focus of Torch Farm Vet’s new Youngstock Programme, which is available to farmers in the South West. As part of the service the vet team can highlight farm specific areas for attention throughout the rearing period and offer advice on improving rearing efficiencies.

Colostrum management at West Webbery Farm is a good example of best practice calf management. All calves are tubed with four litres of colostrum within six hours of birth and a further four litres at the next feed. Team meetings at the start of the year means all of the farm team are up to speed with protocols. A farm ‘Whatsapp’ group also encourages active daily conversations about management.

Fiona explains that speed of colostrum feeding is particularly important as colostrum quality and the ability of the calf to absorb hormones and other nutrients decreases rapidly in the first 24 hours.

“On other farms, often calves are left to suckle the cow and are then tubed with two litre bags and not within six hours of birth. Calves need to receive 10% of their body weight or around 3.5-4 litres within six hours,” she says.

Colostrum includes various hormones and growth factors that programme the calf’s gut and influences how productive she will be in future lactations. It also provides a vital source of nutrients and immunoglobulins, which protect the calf from disease.

“That colostrum feed is crucial in terms of preventing problems and also in limiting the extent of problems should they occur,” comments Fiona. Vaccinating cows with Rotavec Corona also helps fortify colostrum with antibodies for rotavirus, coronavirus and E.coli K99.

With UK research suggesting that 8% of calves are born dead or die within 24 hours on British farms and 15% of dairy heifers fail to make it through the youngstock rearing period, Fiona says colostrum feeding is one way to reverse the trend.

The benefits of colostrum feeding and overall careful management are clear to see at West Webbery Farm with just three calves out of eighty lost from birth to calving last season. Cath believes cleanliness and disinfection is also a key area for attention.

A hot water tap at the calf shed ensures calf feeding equipment gets cleaned daily. Calves are bedded daily and any sick calves are isolated. Calving sheds are also mucked out and disinfected fully every 2-3 weeks and topped up daily with straw. This limits disease challenge, while vaccinating calves against key pneumonia viruses further protects them.

Milk feeding protocols are also focused on maintaining growth. Calves receive 600g of milk powder a day in the first four weeks, which is increased to 800g in weeks 5-6. This is then dropped to 600g once a day before weaning at eight weeks. Cath says dropping milk feeding rates prior to weaning prevents growth checks at weaning by encouraging concentrate intake.

“Calves are eating 1.5-2kg a head at weaning and we soon see an increase in concentrate intake to 3-3.5kg post weaning,” she adds.

Weigh banding shows calves average 0.75kg DLWG during the milk feeding period which means they are achieving the target of doubling birth weight by weaning.

Post weaning, growth rates continue to be monitored by weighing stock every two months. This allows management changes to be implemented should animals be over or under performing. This is particularly important when heifers are at grass when weight gains can be a challenge to maintain.

However, by placing as much attention on heifer grazing management as that of the milking herd, Cath says meeting target growth rates at grass is achievable without supplement.

“We find heifers grow best at grass managed on 24 hour breaks, ideally entering covers at about 2,500-2,600kg DM/ha. They achieved an average growth rate of 0.8kg/day in the last four months before serving on just grass alone. This is key to reducing feed costs and hitting our target of 350kg at bulling,” she adds.