With the nights drawing in and the days rapidly shortening, all the cows are fully housed now. Over the last few weeks we’ve not been adding more cows to the late lactation (“mids”) group because, as our nutritionist always says, if you put a cow to grass this late on, don’t expect her to give you any milk when you bring her back inside over the winter.

Not only that, but we’ve also dried off all the cows due to calf before middle of December so they can stay outside for a few more weeks while the weather is still half decent. This hopefully has the twin advantages of them drying off quicker as the grass isn’t overly nutritious and also by having them outside at dry-off there should be no risk of bacterial infection from lying in any leaked milk.

The net result of both of these factors was that the mids were somewhat depleted and the main group of cows slightly higher stocked than we would like, which has meant quite a bit of shuffling trying to even it all out.

The relatively dry weather has let Stuart make good progress with the field work. We managed to get all our planned grass reseeds done in the end and only have one field of winter wheat left to do, which hopefully we’ll get a break in the weather for in the next week or so.

Beyond that, we’ve been doing the last of the building repairs/alterations in preparation for housing the youngstock. But rather than bore you with that I thought I’d talk about something I’ve not mentioned so far – mainly because it’s really the domain of my mother and my brother’s wife, Charlotte – how we rear our calves up until weaning.

Anyway as soon as the calf is born and the cow has had her post-calving drink the calf is taken to the calf shed and put in an individual calf pen. The pens we use are supplied by a local company and are made from recycled plastic, this means they are really easy to wash/sterilise between calves. They also have a raised floor which means that straw in the pens stays nice and dry while the calves are in it.

The calf will then get three litres of colostrum within its first hour of life. Ideally we’ll use only the dam’s colostrum but there is also a reserve supply of colostrum frozen in single use bags in the freezer for when we don’t get enough or in the middle of the night if we can’t get the cow milked.

The calves are bottle fed twice a day for the first five days while they are in the individual pens. And then once my mother is happy that calves are strong enough to fend for themselves they are moved to a larger pen and switched to the milk feeder.

We’ve had the calf feeder for more than 12 years now and pretty sure it’s paid for itself many times over now. The programme gives the calves 7.2 l/day (@135g of powder in 1l of water) before weaning them off at around 10 weeks old. By this time the calves are normally easily consuming their 2kg of concentrate.

The shed where these young calves are housed was custom built. It has insulated sheets on the walls and roof to reduce the effect of the external environment on the internal temperature. That said, the shed can still be cold in the midst of winter as we try not to have it too heavily stocked, so we still normally use calf jackets on the youngest calves from Nov-March.

There are a couple of extractor fans in the shed’s roof as well as vents in the walls to give a “forced stack effect” thereby ensuring the the calves have good supply of fresh air without draughts.

The floor has a steep-ish 1:20 slope from the back of the pens to a slit drain down the centre of the shed which helps keep the pens dry and hopefully reduces our straw usage. The one bit of the pen that does tend to get wet is next to the feeders where the calves congregate. We’re currently working on plans to put a slightly raised slatted platform here to let it “wash” away.

Overall, we’re really looking to try and give the calves the best start we practically can as after all, in a few years, these are going to be the milking cows that pay the bills!

FACT file

JOHN, his brother Stuart and their mother Margaret, own and manage one of the National Milk Record’s (NMR’s)

top Holstein production herds at Drum, Beeswing, Dumfries. Their herd is also in the six for the coveted NMR-RABDF Gold Cup.

Notably, the 309-cow home-bred herd at Drum has won the NMR's top award for the past two years in succession and also increased production by 15kg of fat and protein to give an average of 961kg and 583kg of milk to 13,662kg on a three times daily milking regime.