Attention to detail key to calf success

Attention to detail key to calf success

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Investing in each automatic feeding system is an investment in the wellbeing of the operators as well as the animals.

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Trudi Hammond likes spending time with calves and checks their health status every day.

Trudi Hammond likes spending time with calves and checks their health status every day.

Trudi Hammond is a veteran dairy farmer using automatic feeding machines in her calf-rearing system.

Four years ago she changed from one automatic feeding system to another.

Investing in each automatic feeding system is an investment in the wellbeing of the operators as well as the animals.

Mrs Hammond has noted the automatic systems alleviate back and shoulder strain, making it a more comfortable and enjoyable environment for her and others to work in.

"We used to feed calves four litres of milk once a day and it was a very manual work system," she said.

"This has made a difference to me physically. My shoulders and back can cope with doing the work this way."

It also means other people can take over the work periodically - including her father and teenage children.

But the workload has not diminished and she remains diligent about record keeping. Every day, she diligently gathers and studies data about system performance and calf health.

As well as the automatic record system, which links from the calf-rearing shed to computers installed in an office on the dairy platform and to the principals' mobile device apps; Mrs Hammond also keeps a handwritten record for each calf.

Trudi and Darryl Hammond milk a split-calving Holstein-Friesian cross-bred herd that rotates through six robot milking machines. The farm, at Buln Buln, Vic, extends across 1.6 kilometres of undulating to steep, heavy grazing country.

Calves have ad lib access to paddock areas outside the calf-rearing shed.

Calves have ad lib access to paddock areas outside the calf-rearing shed.

The calf shed was purpose-built in 2004, with corrugated steel and polycarbonate roofing sheets used along the sides and to delineate stalls, providing additional weather protection from wind. The polycarbonate allows the calves to lay in sun-drenched positions in the shed, while benefiting from wind and rain protection.

The floor of the shed is packed sand and is covered with woodchips during each calving season, topped up as necessary. There is a concrete floor in the operations and feeding area.

In the calf shed are five feeders; four are automatic feeders.The feeders allow calves to drink every two hours, until they get their measured daily quota.

The kit of five feeders and supporting infrastructure cost $43,000 plus the cost of installation.

A broad-spectrum disinfectant Virkon is sprayed every day in the stalls and used to clean teats and all equipment used in the calf shed and feeders.

"I also scrub out every water trough, every day," Mrs Hammond said.

The difference between this automatic calf feeder and the previous one she used is the current model is self-cleaning. Even so, there are parts that Mrs Hammond needs to clean.

The vat has a permanent filter and Mrs Hammond manually sieves the milk several times a day to pick up milk solids and insects out of the vat.

"I change and clean the filters at various hose connection points," she said.

"Then I hose down the concrete pad with hot water every day; it just keeps everything clean."

The automatic calf feeding system is compact.

The automatic calf feeding system is compact.

Lines are checked to ensure no blockages and every day the filters on each line are checked and cleaned by Mrs Hammond.

Milk is automatically fed from the dairy to the vat in the calf shed, from where the system ensures milk travels along hoses to the individual feeders, in response to the calf entering the corral.

There is a strict regimen of feeding, with systematic record keeping. The calf's access is based on the automatic feeder scanning its National Livestock Identification Scheme (NLIS) eartag, before allowing or disallowing it to drink.

"The system has a timer on it so if a calf comes to drink but doesn't drink all of its milk allocation, or goes away and doesn't come back for a while; the remainder of that milk portion is dumped," Mrs Hammond said.

Calves spend their first couple of days in pens in the dairy, initially fed four litres of colostrum in the bottle. By the end of the initial two days, they are sucking independently on teats attached to a green calf feeder.

"We like them to get as much colostrum as possible in their first two days," Mrs Hammond said.

They are then moved onto the automatic feeders.

Over the next five days, each calf needs to drink five litres/day. For the next 50 days up to eight litres of milk per day is available to each calf.

Mrs Hammond checks every calf every day, as well as keeping an eye on the computer records.

"I check twice each day on the computer to ensure everyone's fed," Mrs Hammond said.

"The computer records their drinking speeds as well as the volume of milk each calf has consumed.

"Sometimes I have to intervene, wake them up and shepherd them into the feeder. Some are eager to feed and easy, some calves are lazy."

The automatic feeder allows a maximum of two litres to be drunk in a two-hour period.

A calf using the automatic calf feeding system.

A calf using the automatic calf feeding system.

Animal welfare

With 60-70 per cent fertility in the herd, Mrs Hammond raises an average 200 heifer calves each season. The focus is on good animal welfare practices and includes bells for calves to play with in the calf-raising stalls, eliminating draughts indoors and sunbathing.

The veterinarian is brought in to debud calves, using pain relief, and to vaccinate.

"We've noted no weight loss, since we've been using the vet," Mrs Hammond said. "The calves recover quicker and better."

Bull calves are collected at the dairy by a regular client and heifers are moved to the calf shed, where they also have voluntary access to a surrounding paddock.

"One auto feeder is more manual, so if a calf is feeling poorly or needs medication or milk fortifier, it goes into an isolation pen and I am more hands-on with its feeding," Mrs Hammond said.

Ad lib grain is available from day three, when the heifer calves arrive in the calf shed; ad lib water is available from day one.

"Once feeding well, the calf gets daily access to an adjacent pasture paddock, in sunny weather," Mrs Hammond said.

"When they come back in from the paddock, they walk through a foot bath."

Weaning begins after 57 days for the average calf, in increments of 100 millilitres per day, and extends over 10 days. By the time they are 79 days old, the calves are eating 2kg grain/day and weigh an average 120kg.

After weaning, they are injected with Multimin before they go into the paddock, in groups of 10.

"They stick in their friendship groups from then on. We even find all the cows in a friendship group will calve within days of each other," Mrs Hammond said.

Collars go on the springers when they are brought into the calving paddocks.

The story Attention to detail key to calf success first appeared on Farm Online.

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