REARING calves was not Natalie Merritt’s first choice as a career, having grown up on her parents’ dairy farm, Elgin Dairies at Elgin near Capel.
But as a single mum with daughter Sadie, 4, now attending kindergarten two to three times a week, the range of alternatives was fairly narrow.
“I’ve spent my whole life on a dairy farm,” Ms Merritt said.
“After I finished high school I came back working on the farm for a time until mum (her parents are Darren and Sharon Merritt) said ‘you’re not just going to be a dairy farmer’.”
She qualified at TAFE as a carer for people with disabilities, working mainly with children in schools, then went on to obtain a degree to become a primary school teacher, but found it was not her vocation.
“I came back to the farm – I think I much prefer to work with cows than to work with people and I enjoy working outside,” she said.
“I’d been doing other work around the farm but when our full-time calf rearer left, probably almost two years ago now, I just jumped in.
“I enjoyed it and it was something I could do with my daughter.
“It’s too hard milking in the dairy because I can’t really take her with me in there, but over at the calf shed she can help me or sit on the bike and watch me.”
Ms Merritt has since turned rearing calves – sometimes up to 150 at a time – into her specialty and she is good at it.
At Elgin Dairies under Ms Merritt’s care, the calf mortality rate is less than 1pc.
That is important for the future of a farm business milking 750 Holstein-Friesian cows all year, with an average annual production of more than 10,000 litres per cow on a milking platform of only 250 dry hectares.
Highly productive replacement cows for the two Elgin herds come from the calves Ms Merritt raises all year round.
Her role starts before a calf is born – as on most dairy farms, Elgin Dairies’ maternity ward is a small paddock between the residence and the dairy.
“As soon as I see a calf is about to be born I’ll go to the milk room and start preparing the colostrum – maybe three to four litres of our best quality colostrum – for its first feeds,” Ms Merritt said.
Colostrum, or first milk, is high in protein promoting strength and rapid growth but most importantly it passes on antibodies to protect against disease and immune cells as lymphocytes – special white blood cells – to help the calf develop its own immune system.
The quality of colostrum is measured in the amount of Immunoglobulin G, a type of antibody, it contains.
Colostrum collected from new mothers on farm is preferred to colostrum from other sources because donor cows have been exposed to the same environment and disease risks the calves will face.
At Elgin Dairies milkers collect the colostrum which Ms Merritt then tests with a refractometer to determine quality – only the best is used for the first bottle feed, the rest is refrigerated and stored for later feeds.
“We test all our colostrum because sometimes what looks like really good colostrum isn’t that high quality and what doesn’t look that good tests much better,” she said.
New calves are bottle-fed colostrum for a day to guarantee they get the antibodies and lymphocytes they need.
Maintaining impeccable hygiene standards in preparing and handling colostrum, or any calf milk for that matter, is paramount at Elgin Dairies and one of the reasons for the low calf mortality rate.
“I’m very big on the hygiene side of things, that’s why I’m good at it (calf rearing) – I’m almost too particular at times,” Ms Merritt said.
“I show people where I wash and keep the calf feed bottles in the milk room and people think it’s the kitchen (because it is clean and neat with the bottles hung upside down on a rack to drain dry), but I keep it that way every day, that’s just how it is.
“I suppose it’s about preventing a problem before it becomes a problem – calves are like any other new born baby, they’re susceptible.”
After the first day calves are moved to a purpose-built calf shed designed by Ms Merritt’s father and the focus of Western Dairy’s Dairy Innovation Day at Elgin Dairies three years ago.
In the shed Ms Merritt trains calves to suck on rubber teats attached to feed troughs so they can feed themselves whenever they want.
“It’s a very simple, straight forward system, but it works,” she said.
Calves are fed milk for their first 12 weeks until they are weaned onto grain.
In that time they are in Ms Merritt’s care.
“Within that 12-week window, I believe, is the best chance to set that animal up to ultimately reach its full potential,” she said.
“If you can get them up to full potential in that 12 weeks in the calf shed then they will thrive (as heifers and later as cows).
“If you don’t, they’ll always be playing catch-up.
“We send our heifers to a different block and we expect their condition to fall away a bit, but if they come out of the calf shed in peak condition that drop in condition doesn’t matter much.
“But if they are below peak condition and lost more condition, then that could really set them back.”
An example of the attention to detail in hygiene and biosecurity that Ms Merritt employs is her milk trailer bike, a dedicated four-wheeler towing a trailer with a plastic tank on it used to transfer milk for the calves from the dairy to the calf shed.
“It’s not allowed to go anywhere else on the farm, only from the milk room to the calf shed and back,” she said.
“Little things like that make all the difference, they don’t cost any more and they don’t take any time, you just have to be aware of them.”
With Western Dairy’s assistance Ms Merritt attended the Australian Dairy Conference near Canberra last month and toured a feedlot, Silvermere Holsteins near Cowra and Moxey Farms at Gooloogong which really made an impression on her.
“Dad’s been to Moxey a few times, but that was my first visit,” she said.
“It was amazing, just that they do it on such a big scale – 6000 cows, 24 hours a day, 200 people.
“But even at that size it’s still all about your cows, your people and your land and getting everything right.
“Just to see how they’ve grown was incredible – I think Moxey started with 50 cows – it was inspiring.
“It was the best experience, I took so much away from it, not just in things I can implement here but on a personal level – you can always improve.”
Ms Merritt’s day starts at 6.30am and she admits sometimes there is a compromise between being mum to Sadie and Elgin Dairies’ calf rearer.
“Some days it’s a bit of a juggle – I bring Sadie’s breakfast with me and she has it in the milk room as I’m preparing the calf feed,” she said.
“But you have to have a passion for what you do.
“I don’t wake up in the morning thinking ‘I don’t want to go to work today’, I jump out of bed because I love what I do.”