Farmers from across the south west attended three events in Cornwall, Somerset and Dorset earlier this month, as part of the ForFarmers Youngstock Roadshow, Fit for the Future. The meetings, all part of a nationwide roadshow, brought industry experts together to look at three key areas crucial to successful calf and heifer management.

Peter van t’Veld, International Technical Manager for Denkavit, spoke about the importance of colostrum on calf performance.

“The first 50 days of a calf’s life are crucial to its organ and tissue development, health and growth rates, and subsequent long-term performance. And colostrum is the motor that drives it.”

He explained that Dutch figures show that nearly 10% of calves born alive are lost within the first year of life and 7.7% of those are between three days and three months old. Over 70% of that mortality is due to digestive disorders.

“High quality colostrum, in the right amounts and at the right time, is crucial to giving the calf the start it needs and building immunity. This is a race against time. Antibody levels in colostrum start decreasing from the onset of calving, not from when the calf is born, so a long calving can have a huge effect on the quality of the colostrum produced. Add to this the calf’s gut, which also loses the capacity to absorb colostrum (by six hours after birth it has lost nearly half that capacity), and timing is everything.”

“The first colostrum needs to go into that calf as early as possible, ideally four litres within the first two hours. Research has shown that calves that receive this four litres of high quality colostrum have lower vet costs, culling rates and better weight gain, than those that receive only two litres.

Steven Morrison, from the Agri-Food and Bioscience Institute (AFBI) in Northern Ireland, spoke about achieving target age at first calving.

“Heifers are the best genetics in your herd. Recent figures from AHDB Dairy show that the average PLI of heifers in the British herd stands at 176 whilst the average PLI of cows in their second lactation is 72.

“The cost of rearing these heifers is substantial. The College of Agriculture, Food & Rural Enterprise benchmarking results show the average cost of rearing a heifer in 2015/16 was £1,768. There was also a huge difference between the top 25% at £1,453 and the bottom 25% at £2,283 and most of that extra cost was down to delayed calving. On average, heifers cost an extra £3 a day after 24 months, their lifetime yield is reduced and they are more likely to be culled from the herd.

“We have a target of 24 months for first calving but growing them to meet that target is crucial. A heifer needs to be about 45% of her mature weight to show signs of puberty. You also want her to have two or three cycles beyond puberty in order to get the highest conception rate. So, you need to start to breed heifers at 13.5 months in order to get her to calve down at 24 months.

Jamie Robertson from Aberdeen University explained work done by Owen Atkinson as part of the Dairy Youngstock Project in 2015 on hygiene. It shows that 25% of heifer calves were treated for scours and 78% of farms had major scour pathogens diagnosed.

“Put protocols in place to make sure the cleaning of calf housing and equipment is done to the right standard. You need to give people the time and space to do things properly.

“Ensure facilities are given a deep clean on an annual basis, or after an outbreak of scours. Clean everything from the buckets to the calf housing surfaces with water above 60°c and make sure you’re using the right disinfection products at the right dilution and for the right amount of time.

“Good hygiene is one of the six key requirements for calf housing when you’re looking to provide an environment in which calves can fight of infection, grow and thrive. The others are moisture management, provision of fresh air, reducing air speed in and temperature. And there is a relationship between them all."