Dairylink: Calf rearing properly reduces costs and improves labour efficiency

21st November 2015

Dairylink: Calf rearing properly reduces costs and improves labour efficiency

The McGrade family from Dromore, Co Tyrone, have perfected winter calf rearing, writes Conail Keown.

To achieve the best possible performance, Dairylink project farmer Kevin McGrade has adopted strict protocols when it comes to calf rearing. Kevin maintains that to give calves the best possible chance they need to be kept on a consistent diet and protected against attack from the common calf ailments.

A significant pressure is on the McGrade calf-rearing facilities as a result of gradual herd expansion over the past five years and the development of a more compact calving profile for the 125-cow autumn-calving herd. Two years ago, poor calving performance and high levels of calf mortality prompted a change in the calf-rearing plan for the farm. While a new calf-rearing shed was built, the much-improved hygiene standards adopted and stricter feeding plan enforced formed the foundation of the new calf-rearing policy.

"Losing calves due to poor planning and the lack of good calf-rearing protocols or targets is disappointing and undoubtedly affects the morale of everyone involved in the farm," explained Kevin.

Kevin's local discussion group played a key role in developing his rearing policy, with a number of group meetings on the farm focusing Kevin’s attention on the issue. This year mortality on the farm is 0%, which includes all calves including bull calves as the farm had been closed with TB during August, September and October. To date, 80% of the herd has calved, and with calving having started in August, this equates to approximately 100 calves in the rearing system. The TB restriction has just been lifted on the farm and bull calves have been sold to reduce pressure on the rearing facilities.

Three key areas Kevin has focused attention on are calf nutrition, general hygiene, and management through growth targets.


Four litres of colostrum is fed to all calves as soon as possible once they are born. Cows are hand-milked in the calving pen immediately after calving and colostrum is administered using a stomach tube within 10 minutes from birth. This ensures that a sufficient quantity of the cow’s colostrum gets into the calf when immunity is at its lowest. Kevin initially administers two colostrum feeds to his calves before moving them on to whole milk for the remainder of their first week, after which milk powder is used. Powder is mixed at a rate of 150g/litre and fed at two litres per calf twice per day for the first four weeks. After this, calves are fed three litres of milk once per day with a mix rate of 700g/3 litres water as a means of reducing labour requirements and encouraging concentrate intake. Powder is mixed with slightly heated water from the plate cooler in the parlour. The powder Kevin uses is 20% crude protein and 17% crude fat. It is based on a mixture of skim milk powder, whey milk powder, and buttermilk powder.


Calves are managed in pens of six to 10 and will stay in the same group until they are weaned at eight weeks or when they are consuming between 1kg and 1.2kg concentrate per day. Keeping calves in consistent batches minimises stress on the calves that could be caused by mixing with other calves. Batch teat feeders are used to feed the calves and they are thoroughly cleaned at least once per week. Calves are housed on straw beds with access to straw racks, fresh water and an ad-lib 17% protein nut from day one in the shed. Clean dry bedding is viewed as critical on the farm, with calves freshly bedded every two days and bedding completely cleaned out every three weeks.


Kevin works closely to targets and will use a weigh band to check actual calf weight against target weight throughout the initial rearing period. While he views target weight as very important, he will not wean calves unless they are consuming 1kg of concentrate per day. However, Kevin admits that with the new protocols in place, target weight and concentrate consumption usually coincide extremely well. Target weight for weaning is between 120kg and 130kg, which works out at 1kg to 1.1kg DLWG over the eight-week period.

Kevin places a big emphasis on good hygiene and calf nutrition. However, he will admit breeding has a role to play in delivering healthy calves. High-EBI breeding has been used extensively on the farm over the past 10 years and in this time he has seen improvements in herd health, especially the health of calves between newborn and weaning stage. "If calves are healthy, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t thrive from day one," suggests Kevin.

This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of the Irish Farmers Journal. Please click on the below Irish Farmers Journal logo to be brought to additional dairy articles

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