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One wean step at a time; farming.

Byline: By Jennifer Mackenzie

DAIRY farmers can exploit their herd's potential and improve calf management cost effectively by implementing a combination of research findings and new technology.

Farmers can reduce rearing costs and improve liveweight gains by up to 20% by introducing a step weaning strategy to their calf management regime, according to research findings.

Trials at Writtle College involved feeding calves 2.5 litres twice a day for the first three weeks: one group continued on this regime until abrupt weaning after five weeks; the other went on to a step weaning system with two litres once a day during week four, one litre during week five.

"The step-weaned group began to show an advantage in terms of weight gain immediately after the milk was restricted to one feed of two litres per day in the fourth week and concentrate intake increased," said Volac International's Maggie Gould at the launch of the company's new management tool, the Colac Calf Club at the University of Edinburgh's Langhill Farm, one of the club's first members.

The on-line facility is available to all farmers using Volac's computerised feeding systems. It features simplified on line manuals, FAQs, a regular Farm Focus taking a look at other Calf Club members and their experiences and local support contact details. In addition to these, members will be able to use the site to quickly identify and order any spare parts they may need, and use the Club's sale board to advertise second hand calf feeding equipment. "The trials concluded that accelerated growth rates in the step weaned calves were largely attributed to the smooth weaning transition which allowed calves to continue drinking some milk and yet encouraged a rapid increase in the amount of concentrate eaten," she said.

"Following the reduction in amount of milk fed after three weeks, these calves began to eat more concentrate, so that by the end of the 10-week period the step weaned heifers had eaten an average of almost 134kg concentrates a head, a significant 33% more than the abrupt weaned calves.

"Step weaning does require more planning and labour, particularly if large numbers of home bred calves are involved," she said.

"Under these circumstances, a simple and effective solution would be to introduce a computerised feeding system which benefits from complete control over individual calf-feeding programmes and has an automated step-weaning curve to gradually reduce milk intake over a set time."

Computerised calf rearing is paying off at the University of Edinburgh's Langhill Farm where sufficient replacement heifers are required to calve at 24 months to supply its 240 cow Premium Health Scheme herd yielding 9,500l, explained its manager, Lawrence Hodgson-Jones.

Calves previously housed in individual pens were fed once a day on a bucket system and weaned abruptly at 42 days. They were achieving 0.55kg daily liveweight gain. Since introducing the computerised feeding system, weaning has been extended to 56 days with a gradual reduction in milk over the final 14 days, daily live weight gain has increased to 0.68kg and the calves are free of weaning checks.

"Our herd, like the majority of others, has been continually improving in genetic merit over the years, however we believed that our calf rearing strategy hadn't been keeping pace with exploiting these youngsters' potential.

"While the former system provided good individual attention and control over disease spread, the calves suffered a weaning check, they were noisy between feeds and consequently stressed, and what's more the accommodation needed updating to meet the Welfare Code's requirements," he commented.

Mr Hodgson-Jones said investment in a computerised feeder from Volac International, at a cost of pounds 5 per calf over five years, is so far proving to meet expectations and is enabling the unit to rear its calves as close as possible to best practice.

"Routine time spent with the calves has literally halved to 1.5 hours a day, the majority is observational rather than spent on physical hard work, and we are now able to spend more time on other important tasks. So far, these calves have gone on to meet our 13-month target first service and we will continue to monitor their lifetime performance."


CREAM OF THE CROP: Langhill Farm; Steven Burton and Volac's Sophie Lambton.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Jun 30, 2007
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