Poor calf health management at birth can add hundreds of pounds on to the cost of rearing animals according to Shropshire rearer Chris Webb, Rowe Farm, Welshampton.

Mr Webb set up his first calf unit five years ago and he now rears more than 1000 dairy, beef and Wagyu cross dairy calves a year, sourcing stock from a handful of local dairy farms at two to three weeks of age. He rears them for 12-14 weeks before selling them on to 15-20 growers and finishers.

However, over the past five years he has witnessed a variation in calf performance between farms, something he puts down to the attention to detail given at birth. Chris' background running technology companies has enabled him to customise a standard milk feed with additional monitoring software which tracks individual growth so he can adjust feeding and management as required.

“There can be a massive variation in calf performance from the different farms," he said. "Our aim is for dairy cross beef calves to be averaging about 1.2kg per day and Waygu crosses about 1kg a day. However, it can be half this in calves that haven’t been correctly managed from the start."

Initially the rearing unit had a problem with high mortality from one source farm.

Chris added: “At first, it didn’t click that so many of the calves affected with pneumonia cases were from the same unit. It was only because we collect this data that we could see that over time these calves averaged half the growth rate and 20 times the incidence of pneumonia compared to the other calves, presumably due to poor neonatal management.”

As a result, he has been able to select the farms he buys calves from, so he is now only receiving calves from farms with the very best management. Serious cases of pneumonia are rarely seen and overall incidence has dropped to less than 1%.

Getting adequate colostrum into those calves as soon as they are born is key. “In my opinion those calves that haven’t received enough colostrum take longer to finish. We would pay more for these better calves as they are less work, grow better and yield a better return.”

Calf management

On the rearing unit, calves are kept in batches of 20 in eight pens. Chris aims to fill up a pen at a time, rearing them as a stable group until they move on 12-14 weeks later.

All calves are vaccinated on arrival with Rispoval IntraNasal, which gives 12 weeks of cover against Bovine Respiratory Syncytial virus (BRSv) and Parainfluenza-3 virus (Pi3v). This protects calves against respiratory disease for the duration they are on the farm. They are also vaccinated against IBR on arrival and receive a two-dose injectable pneumonia vaccination before they are sold on to extend their cover on the grower/finisher unit.

“We use Rispoval IntraNasal because it is a live vaccine and has a fast onset of immunity. Pneumonia is always going to be an issue with calves especially when you are mixing them from different sources, so we like to protect them by vaccinating.

“Vaccination is money well spent as calves with pneumonia can cost you hundreds of pounds from lost performance and the cost of antibiotics,” he says.

Careful management throughout the duration the calves are on the farm is also critical for animal health and to optimise growth and performance.

Chris believes limited energy supply can predispose calves to respiratory infections, and some milk replacer formulations are too protein-rich and energy-light. As a result, he feeds calves an energised calf milk powder which mimics natural milk with 10% more metabolisable energy and a high fat content. Calves are fed 7-8litres of milk a day on automated feeders and are weaned on weight at about six to seven weeks old.

“My instinct from what I’ve seen on farm is that an energy shortage in the feed is linked to the levels of pneumonia. We substantially increased the milk fat content in a recent trial on our unit and the effect on calf health was striking."

Calves are weaned onto a 17% protein starter nut, which is available ad-lib from arrival. Calves also have free access to drinking water and clean straw to eat.

“When calves reach 70kg we begin weaning by reducing milk feed by half a litre for every kg of their growth rather than a set amount each day. If we find their growth rate slows, we will wean slower.”

Ventilation is important in keeping calves healthy. At Rowe Farm the calf shed was initially too draughty, so galebreakers were installed and the doors were sheeted.

Pens are bedded little and often on straw using a Spread a Bale. “It’s important we keep them clean and dry as this can impact calf health,” he says.

FARM facts

• Rearing 1000 calves a year for 10-15 growers and finishers

• Automated milk feeder

• All calves vaccinated for pneumonia

• Pneumonia rate <1%

• Calves gradually weaned on weight not age