A number of committed Dumfries and Galloway dairy farmers – all with a keen interest in rearing better herd replacements – are now meeting regularly to discuss and share improved youngstock rearing practices.

Thanks to an innovative new calf club initiative, organised and facilitated by vet Alison Brough from the Ark Veterinary Centre based in Lockerbie, five different farms are already benefitting from engaging more proactively with their vet over youngstock health issues.

Club members are also recording more data and benchmarking their respective calf rearing operations with the aim of achieving better animal performance.

“We held our inaugural club meeting in March and in April we visited SRUC’s Crichton Royal research farm at the invitation of manager Hugh McClymont. Hugh is also a founder member of the club and was keen to highlight the importance of doubling calf birthweight by weaning and achieving an average daily liveweight gain of 0.8kg per day up until bulling. He also wanted to showcase the farm’s recent calf housing changes and straightforward, practical colostrum feeding protocols,” said Alison.

Crichton Royal rears 170 dairy heifers annually and, on average, the farm’s herd replacements calve down at 23.5 months of age.

“Our calves are reared in individual hutches for the first seven days of life, during which time we feed them three litres in the morning and three litres in the afternoon of a 15% concentration calf milk powder,” explained Mr McClymont.

“They are then housed in igloos in groups of 12-14 animals up until weaning and we record everything, including feed, forage and water intake. I wanted to discuss with the group the level of equipment available these days to help you monitor performance and rear better cows more cost effectively. Whilst I accept that we are essentially a research facility, we must also operate as a commercial farm and balance the books.”

Calf club members also discussed Crichton Royal’s colostrum feeding protocols. Colostrum is harvested from freshly calved cows and its quality assessed with a colostrometer.

“Any protocol needs to be simple to be implemented consistently. Our aim is to ensure every newborn calf gets four litres of good quality colostrum within six hours of birth – and within an hour of birth during daylight hours. After that they are straight onto milk replacer,” Hugh said.

Another member of the calf club keen to share best practice and absorb new information is Gareth Owen from Potstown Farm near Middlebie.

Gareth runs a 250-cow, all year round calving closed herd; doubling cow numbers over the last five years, which has put pressure on available youngstock rearing labour and facilities.

“We are now producing 60-70 heifers annually and whilst these do calve down at about two years of age at a decent weight, I think we could do better – hence my interest in joining the Ark calf club,” Gareth said.

“Thanks to Alison’s help, we now weigh calves more regularly – every two weeks in fact to make sure they are on track. Generally, things are going quite well, although we have struggled a bit with a scour problem recently in 5-15-day-old calves. Faecal sample test results suggested this was a cryptosporidiosis problem, but we are on top of this now.

“In addition to the bespoke veterinary support we get from Ark, it’s good to hear feedback from other farms and have the opportunity to share ideas on how to improve youngstock performance. It’s a great initiative and I am enjoying participating,” Gareth added.

Alison Brough hopes to convene at least four calf club meetings a year, which she plans to hold at various interesting venues to offer different practical perspectives on youngstock rearing issues.

“That way we can all learn from what others are doing outside the club, as well as exchange ideas and benchmark performance data between us,” she said.

Any youngstock rearers interested in joining the new Ark calf club should contact Alison Brough for more details.