December 2016 Gold Cup Comment: Heifer rearing under scrutiny

This month 2016 NMR/RABDF Gold Cup winner Simon Bugler from Dorset explains the heifer rearing system at Pilsdon Dairy Farm and the changes being considered.

Our in-calf heifers are still enjoying some good grass growth with 120 heifers still grazing until the middle of the month.  However, after two heavy days of rain, this was reduced to 70 at the end of November.  It can be difficult to get it right but this year’s weather has really helped us cope with our high heifer numbers.

We are still grazing some Italians leys that are close to the dairy but the majority are on steeper drier ground, which always helps us extend the season.  We try to split the heifers into smaller groups so the ground isn’t poached as much in wet weather.  I have also spent time going through each group removing heifers within two months of calving so they are housed and able to transition correctly.  We also removed smaller heifers or more recently in-calf heifers whose growth rate could be checked by wet/cold weather. 

Some of the heifers at Pilsdon Dairy Farm

Some of the heifers at Pilsdon Dairy Farm

This leaves the stronger heifers from four to seven months in-calf still grazing.  This does help reduce our rearing costs but the unknown for us is whether or not this will still deliver required growth rates.  Weighing heifers throughout rearing is not something we have done in the past but we are considering it going forward.  It would be useful to know if we are reaching the target weight at first calving.  We are averaging 25.5 months at calving and I am sure we could reach two years or less but the difficulty is how grazing fits.  If we housed all youngstock I have no doubts we could average under two year calving but we want to make good use of our steep grazing ground and farm the farm we have.

We are making progress with service age averaging 14 to 15 months for the last four months so we should see our average calving age come down.  As soon as our heifers are PD+, they are moved from housing and their TMR feeding and only have either grazing or grass silage during winter with no concentrates fed until transition three to four weeks before calving.  This is how we have always fed our heifers and I am very happy with how this works and the cost saving it gives us.

The biggest influence on reducing our calving age will be with our calf rearing.  Three months ago we made changes to the feeding post weaning.  The calves leave their hutches at 65 to 70 days; then they are moved into groups of between eight and 10 calves onto straw beds.  We have seen strong weaned calves struggle with this change so we moved them onto ad-lib concentrate.  This has seen their intakes of concentrate increase, which has really helped continue their growth.

If we continue to improve growth rates our next point in question will be: do we turn yearlings out for grazing prior to service or just wait until they are pregnant?  If we can consistently average a service age of 14 to 15 months, it leaves a much smaller window for turn out pre service.  It would then become much more practical to graze after becoming pregnant but for this everything has to be perfect.

Out of the blue we had two dead heifer calves in the calf unit, where for a long time we have had no losses.  Both losses were as a result of scour.  Between five and 10 calves from the same age group also had the same scours.  We took faeces to identify the problem, and check bloods for colostrum intakes.  All colostrum tests showed good levels of colostrum received with gammaglobulin levels of between 29.6 and 38 ZST units, which was pleasing as we are aiming for over 20.  Unsurprisingly the scour came back as crypto, usually due to a hygiene breakdown.  If caught early we have found a course of electrolytes seems to help the calf regain its appetite to overcome scours.

The heifer calves go to the calf unit, while bull calves stay at the dairy and leave for Blade Farming between three and four weeks.  We have had no problems with the bull calves so I am happy no lapse in the calving box hygiene has caused an outbreak, instead it  is isolated to the calf/heifer unit.

Calf rearing has been hugely improved so everyone was disappointed and not wanting to point the finger anywhere in particular, we just refocused on the importance of hygiene at all stages of milk mixing and distribution.  It seems to have worked and we’re back on track with the next batch of calves coming through that 10 to 20 day period well.

The crypto losses would appear to have crept up on us because of slight complacency.  This was described very well on the lorries that recently delivered our crimped maize for clamping.  The haulage firm’s lorries all had the phrase “complacency ruins perfection” on their vehicles.

A few improvements have been made in the parlour for both cows and milkers.  Six and a half years in, the parlour has seen out the life of our rubber matting.  New matting has given the parlour a real lift and must be helping both cows make that 90° turn in the quick exit as well as helping the legs of our guys in the parlour.

We have also put some cameras up around the dairy for all sorts of reasons—security, calving pen observation, and 360 zoom in and out for heat observation in the main housing.  I think having access to this anywhere at anytime on my phone will prove really useful.  So if I’m away from the farm, it will be reassuring to see the wheels are still turning!

We have a screen in the parlour for the guys milking so they can check the calving pen easily and also the backing gate, so they are able to check the gate is not being used too aggressively.

One thing I didn’t anticipate is how useful my wife Cat would find this.  She rang me the other night to find out why I was so late for supper.  I said I was just walking in, to which she replied “no you’re not, you’re at the far end of the highs!”

Cows in herd: 628
Cows in milk: 564
Milk sold litres/cow/day: 36.2
Fat: 3.93
Protein: 3.19
SCC: 100
Bactoscan: 9
Calvings cows/heifers: 31/31
Heifer calves: 38

Reprinted from the Decmeber 2016 edition of British Dairying. To see the original article please visit the British Dairying website.