For milk producers Andrew and Verlie Timms, successful calf rearing is about exceptional husbandry and bespoke feeding for the adult life journey their dairy and beef calves will follow.

“We rear our own female dairy herd replacements, as well as some calves for the beef market when TB restrictions allow – and their respective development paths dictate the feeding approach we take,” says Verlie, who takes responsibility – with daughter Lucy – for the calf rearing at East Luddon Farm.

The 380-acre family farm based on relatively high ground on the edge of Dartmoor, near Okehampton, is the only dairy unit in their parish. Three generations of the family work on the farm, which Andrew and Verlie run in partnership with Andrew’s parents, Barrie and Diane.

It’s also home to a 200-cow all year-round calving Holstein Friesian herd where cows yield 8,000 litres at 4.25 per cent butterfat and 3.33 per cent protein on average annually.

“We can’t realistically grow maize here, so run a traditional grass-based dairy system; grazing our high pastures in the spring and summer and relying on silage fed indoors in the winter. The ration for the adult milking cows is supplemented with a bought-in protein blend and molasses, which we mix in a feeder wagon. The cows are also fed to yield using out-of-parlour feeders, with a flat rate fed in the parlour at each milking,” says Andrew.

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The family is advised by technical development manager Richard Waters from Harpers Feeds, who is a strong believer in a bespoke approach to rearing different pre-weaned calves.

“Modern calf milk replacer formulation is becoming more sophisticated and multi-functional – so much so that there should always be a quality nutrition product available that is right for your dairy and beef calves, rearing objectives and farm buildings situation,” he says.

“But for great results on any calf unit, it’s important to invest wisely in a proven milk formula product for the crucial pre-weaning period. And one specifically formulated for the type of calf you are rearing,” he maintains.

Verlie says that every calf born on the farm receives at least three litres of high quality, regularly tested colostrum – fed by bottle as soon as possible after birth. “They then get Mum’s milk for a couple of days before moving onto different Harpers’ milk powder formulations – one for the dairy replacements and another for the beef calves. The calves also have access to fresh water and coarse mix.

“With the heifer calves we are after frame (not fat) growth. And an adult dairy cow that will be able to maximise its lifetime milking performance potential, as well as make maximum use in adult life of the forage we produce,” says Andrew.

“We now know that feeding a good heifer calf 900g of performance-formulated milk powder daily – in two 2.5 litres feeds – is needed to meet optimum rearing targets. And absolutely crucial if you want to calve heifers down with an adequate body size at 24 months,” he adds.

Richard Waters agrees, pointing out that research has shown that there is a large amount of important early life development in the pre-weaned phase.

“The development of both mammary cells and the gut – and metabolic programming – all take place during this crucial early life period. This stage is the blueprint for life, so feeding high levels of a properly formulated dairy calf milk replacer enables us to take full advantage. It’s also the time when feed conversion efficiency is at its highest,” he says.

Verlie explains that when rearing beef calves, the feeding objective is different. “For beef calves we are trying to produce an animal that someone will want to buy at eight weeks of age. Basically, you want a shiny, bouncy, outstanding looking calf that will be attractive to any purchaser – or be ready to rear on cost-effectively for the appropriate beef market on your own farm.”

Whatever the rearing objective, Richard says that the Timms family always manage to produce outstanding dairy and beef calves at weaning. “They always look fantastic and regularly top the market,” he says.

He also points out that there is an economic benefit to feeding pre-weaned beef calves differently from dairy calves. “Our beef calf milk replacer is formulated differently but is also around £200 per tonne lees expensive than the dairy calf product, which means beef calves can be reared on it extremely cost-effectively under the new dairy legislation of keeping all calves born on the farm until they are eight weeks of age.”

Newborn calves at East Luddon Farm are reared in small groups of up to three, depending on numbers, before moving into mobile ‘calf pods’ that will house up to six calves.

“We used to struggle with pneumonia problems in our old calf shed, probably because of overstocking, so switched to using these mobile DIY calf houses, which Andrew, our son Jack and Barrie built themselves,” says Verlie.

“This well-ventilated accommodation has improved the situation no end – so much so that we haven’t needed to vaccinate our calves against pneumonia.”

It seems the Timms’ calf rearing operation is as honed as it can be and their meticulous approach to rearing the next generation of dairy and beef cattle is certainly paying off.