Calf rearing rarely takes priority on dairy farms, with many often housed in an old disused barn with poor lighting and ventilation, however do the job right and you’ll reap the rewards of improved levels of efficiency and productivity and more importantly, higher profit margins in the long term.

That is exactly what Willie and Anne Smith of Crooks Farm, Dundonald, are witnessing on an almost daily basis since their unique 100 x 45ft calf unit was completed.

The shed boasts an exclusive ventilation system comprising polycarbonate sheets and curtains, and relies on an insulated composite panelled roof with a novel polycarbonate ventilation ridge, designed by William Smith, of William Smith Engineering.

“Our calves are happier and healthier since they moved into the new shed in November,” said Willie.

“Working with the calves is now a pleasurable job as they are all housed in the one shed in a clean, open environment instead of a time consuming, difficult task when calves were housed in various sheds.”

In previous years, when the farm was home to 90-100 Holstein Friesian cows, there were few issues rearing calves. Health problems only began to arise with the need to upsize cow numbers following eldest son Kerr’s decision to come home and work on the farm, while middle son Logan, is studying for a degree in sport and physical activity at Strathclyde University. Youngest son Glen, who is in his final year at school, is also showing interest in the farm.

Willie added: “We never used to get any major problems rearing calves – it’s only since we increased numbers to 140+ cows that we’ve seen increased respiratory problems. Calves were in various buildings and we were constantly having to use antibiotics. We were also losing too many calves.”

Previously, most of the calves were housed in an old byre, with others penned in the corner of various sheds, but, despite the fact such areas were steam cleaned and disinfected on a regular basis, the couple was constantly having to address health issues.

“Housing was the problem as we were regularly introducing new calves and having to move calves round for space,” added Willie.

The new calf unit appears to be the business though as antibiotics are rarely used now. Willie and Anne – who is in charge of the calves – also believe they’ll be able to reduce the age at first calving from 27months to 24months due to improved growth rates.

Commenting on the design of the unit, Willie Smith of William Smiths Engineering who is celebrating 50 years in the business said: “Ideally, you want to let as much air and light into a calf shed and provide a temperature as even as possible to reduce the risk of respiratory diseases developing.

“Insulated composite panels reduce the need for calf jackets during the winter as there is no condensation and therefore the shed is warmer during the winter and cooler in the summer.”

Mr Smith who also milks dairy cattle at Bottoms Farm and is in the process of constructing a new milking parlour building incorporating the same innovative system for his own business, added that the polycarbonate sheets used not only allow maximum light into the unit but also provide louvered ventilation, thereby providing a constant air flow in to extract stale air while movable curtains on the opposite side protect the calves from the wind and the rain, and allow the shed to be mucked out.

“A lot of the curtains on the market can be prone to breaking, but the polycarbonate sheets are stronger and UV protected. They’re virtually unbreakable and they’re slightly cheaper than the curtains,” said Mr Smith adding that after years of looking into the use of polycarbonate sheets, he is now in the the process of trademarking the system.

“Necessity is the mother of invention – we couldn’t find anything on the market that worked to improve ventilation sufficiently in calf sheds, so we invented our own.”

He’s not finished yet either as while the shed at Crooks is operated manually by a single lever, he is looking into an automated system for the future, operating from a weather station.

Another unique feature of the unit which has proved a huge success is that the larger pens are on two levels, with calves having to step up from the bedding area to the feed part which is on a slight slope downwards towards a drainage channel allowing urine and any spilt milk to seep away.

“We have been to see a lot of calf units up and down the country and spoken to various vets and calf specialists and they all advised us to have more drainage in our calf pens,” said Willie.

With this in mind and the help of Billy Burns of William Burns Builders, Dunlop, who carried out all concrete and drainage work in the shed, a drainage channel across the front of the pen was created. This is covered by a metal plate which protects a 6” sewage pipe drilled with holes every 4-5” to take away fluids directly to an outside tank, thereby eliminated any smell and reducing the need for straw.

“We’re using significantly less straw in the new shed and will be saving a third of the straw we used in the previous system. The shed houses 70 calves and a good quality round bale of straw will last three days,” he added.

Colostrum is also key to calf health and the Smiths aim to ensure all newly-born calves are given their mother’s milk for the first three days. Calves are housed in twin pens for the first week to 10 days where they also have access to Harbro’s 18% protein Buttercup rearer nuts, straw and water.

From there, they are moved to a larger pen which is able to accommodate up to 12 calves at a time and fed Buitelaar’s Heifer 100 calf milk, twice a day via an Urban Milkshuttle which mixes the milk to the correct temperature and the right concentrate, for feeding through a Holme and Laue bucket and teat system.

The new unit also includes calf yolks so they can be locked in during feeding time and are therefore unable to bully neighbouring calves into giving up there portion. Locking them in also highlights any calves that fail to finish their milk and are perhaps feeling off colour. Buckets are washed out after each feed and teats disinfected.

In contrast to most dairy farms, calves are gradually weaned of milk from day 50, thereby encouraging them to eat more of the heifer rearer nut such that by day 70 when they are completely weaned, they don’t miss the milk.

“The difference between the calves on the old system and those in the new shed is night and day. You can virtually see the calves growing on a daily basis because they are so much healthier,” said Willie, who added that the calves are kept inside on creep feed for five months before going outside to grass where the heifer rearer nut feed is continued.

Just as importantly, the Smiths have turned around what was a somewhat mundane job that few were interested in, into absolute joy which in itself is well worth the significant investment it has cost providing a lighter, airier, healthier environment for calves, which, long-term will not only increase productivity but also profit margins.