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Focusing on calf health

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A Shropshire farmer who quit milking six years ago is now achieving remarkable results rearing calves. With 140 acres and 138 cows Chris Sutton of Royals Green Farm, Burleydam was in the classic small dairy farm situation of either having to invest and expand to become efficient and profitable or get out of milk altogether.

His business consultant, Adrian Caine of P & L Agriconsulting, drew up some sensible business modelling and after considering various options they realised that calf rearing was the best way to forward rather than investing heavily in dairying for what would always be a one-man farm.

Calf rearing potentially made best use of Chris's livestock skills and offered a reasonable income and lifestyle for him and his wife Lou and their young daughter Poppy.

The key to success of the calf rearing venture has been in the planning. The business was planned in detail right from the start.

"That's why it works," said Adrian. "Chris knew the establishment cost, the cost of the calves, how much it would cost to rear them and where he was likely to sell them."

Endeavouring to keep costs down Chris chose to make use of an existing building rather than build a new one and Adrian's colleague Will Phillips, buildings expert at P & L, was brought in to re-think an old Dutch barn and pole lean-to. The final design layout had to meet the objectives for calf health and numbers, be profitable and also easy to operate as a one-man system.

"Healthy calves are what it is all about," said Adrian. "A healthy calf is easier to manage, will grow quicker and cost less to rear."

With the money generated from selling the milking herd in 2010, Chris set about converting the Dutch barn and lean-to into a modern up-to-date calf rearing shed. Half the shed consists of four pens for calves that are on milk from a computerised automatic feeder, using four igloos, one per pen, to increase space and help ventilation.

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The other half is split into three pens accommodating 20 weaned calves. Converting the existing buildings rather than build from new saved around £22,000 (£65/sq metre average building cost).

The igloos, which are positioned down the side of the rearing shed, have been key in allowing more room and free air movement around the calves, Chris explained.

"The igloos are easy to manage as they can be simply be lifted off the hard core to scrape underneath and disinfect between batches," he said. From starting with batches of 60 Chris has steadily increased intake and now has batches of 80 coming in every six weeks, mainly consisting of Aberdeen Angus and Hereford calves plus 20 Friesian bulls every month that get sold through the local market.

The calves come in at around 10 days of age and stay on milk for five weeks. They wear transponders to access their 4.8 litre allowance of milk a day. They can only access 2.4 litres in total in any 12 hour period and a maximum of 1.2 litres in a single visit at 177g/ litre. A high protein dry starter feed is available ad lib.

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Mortality is less than one per cent, a remarkable achievement compared to the average three to four per cent seen on calf rearing units, equivalent to an extra 24 calves sold from the 800 calves now put through a year.

"It is a natural system in well ventilated accommodation with milk fed little and often," said Chris.

To help achieve these mortality rates Chris is always on the farm constantly going in and out of the shed throughout the day checking for any health issues that can be treated at a very early stage, which means calves will recover quicker and go on to reach their growth rate targets.

Calves are weighed every fortnight and daily live weight gain to weaning is 1.3 kilos/day compared to an average figure of 1.1 kilo/day seen on most units. A calf cannot regulate its own body temperature up until 12 weeks of age so it is important to keep the building dry so the floor on the rearing pens slops towards a central drainage channel to clear any dampness in the building.

"One of the issues we had was how to enclose the rearing shed in bad weather so we opted for plastic netting on frames – a cheaper version of Galebreaker screening," said Chris.

After weaning the calves move into the three rearing pens in the Dutch barn until they are ready for sale at 150 to 160 kilos. A 12 per cent blend is fed alongside a 15 per cent protein rearing nut. Some calves are sold on contract through a well known livestock firm while other are sold to private buyers, a market he is keen to expand.

"Buyers know the provenance of my calves as I make it a priority to source from farms where I know they have received sufficient colostrum as this will make a big difference to their performance post weaning," Chris said. Even calves from local markets are generally from known vendors.

"We have customers coming to us wanting a batch of calves of certain breed and weight so we can offer a bespoke service to meet all needs," he said.

"The calves are growing well when they leave us and are ready to move to finishing units at 14 weeks of age when food conversion rate is at its maximum and well before conversion rates drop off naturally at about six months of age."

Chris is delighted with his calf rearing venture and admits he doesn't really miss the dairy cows, especially in the winter months. He has now put up a further calf rearing building so he can put 800 calves through a year, nearly twice the original output. For the future he hopes to develop the independent calf rearing business dealing directly with farmers in terms of sourcing calves and selling them on to rearing farms.

For further information, contact Chris Sutton on 01948 871 232 or Adrian Caine at P & L Agriconsulting on 07950 91222, email him at a.caine@pl-agriconsulting.co.uk or visit Chris's website at www.shropshirelivestocksupplies.co.uk

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