When Carole Smith started to feel pain in her shoulders and back as she carried pails of milk to her calf pens, little did she realise her injury would start a chain of events that would significantly improve the way her family dairy unit rears its replacement heifers.

“It was getting increasingly difficult for me to feed the calves and my husband wanted to step in and take over, but he has enough to do and I wanted to keep going, so we started to think how we could make the job easier,” says Carole, who farms in East Ayrshire with husband Tom and children Adam, Lynn and Paul.

A discussion with their local Harbro representative, Billy Andrew, led to Volac business manager for Scotland, Alan Smith, visiting Haysmuir Farm in Stewarton.

“Alan was able to suggest a number of viable options that would remove most of the physical effort that comes with bucket feeding calves. He also said building in some automation would save time, which could be spent on other jobs around the farm or monitoring calf health and well-being more closely. Eventually, we settled on an Urban MilkShuttle as it seemed the ideal solution,” says Carole.

Alan Smith explains why: “Available in five different sizes, the MilkShuttle is a robust, mobile system suitable for a range of calf feeding systems. First and foremost, it takes away the need to carry buckets of milk from a mixing station to the calf pens, but it also mixes milk powder and water at the correct temperature and concentration required at each stage of the pre-weaning feeding process.”

Newborn calves from the all year-round calving herd at Haysmuir are paired together in hutches initially. Once they are four to five weeks of age, they move into a pen with seven or eight others where they are kept until weaning and beyond.

Cows are put to sexed semen or a Belgian Blue Bull. All female calves are reared as milking herd replacements or sold as calved heifers. The calves from cows put to the Belgian Blue are sold at a local market around three-five months of age.

Carole added: “Alan also reviewed our mixing protocol and feeding rates – advising the importance of mixing the milk powder with water at 40°C and at a concentration of 15% (150g of milk powder in every litre of warm water). Unfortunately, I was actually mixing it at too weak a concentration, which probably explained our calf size issue.

“He then pointed out that having got the concentration right, we needed to feed the calves three litres of mixed milk, twice a day. This ensures they received 900g of milk power each day, which is what’s needed to secure optimum heifer calf development and hit recommended target growth rates."

Two months on the new feeding regime, and the Smith family saw a distinct improvement in calf growth and performance. What’s more, they were able to wean calves at eight to nine weeks of age, rather than 12 weeks, which is what they were doing previously.

“The calves were growing noticeably better and once the new milk shuttle arrived, I started to find the whole feeding process so much easier and naturally far less taxing on my back and shoulders,” says Carole.

Tom and Carole also since reviewed the milk powder they are feeding. “Occasionally, we do have the odd calf underperforming and suspect its digestive system might be struggling a little,” says Carole.

“Last September, Billy Andrew mentioned that some of his customers had been suffering similar issues and had recently seen calf performance improvements by switching to Volac’s new Imunogard® milk formula, which is 100% dairy protein. We tried it too and certainly saw a benefit pretty quickly, particularly in terms of growth rates and overall calf health and bloom,” says Carole.

Carole’s husband Tom is also delighted with the progress made. “Not only is Carole enjoying looking after the calves again, we are also rearing better herd replacements. I’m now serving heifers at 14 months of age and they are calving down at 23-24 months, which is a big improvement on where we were two years ago,” he says.

“To be fair, with hindsight, we were probably a bit complacent in carrying on doing the things we have always done. But Alan opened our eyes and we’re really pleased with how the calf rearing system is operating now.

“I know we are feeding more milk powder, which on the face of it means our input costs have gone up, but you need to evaluate the improved output over the longer term.

“As a result of these growth performance improvements, we are enabling these heifer replacements to enter the adult milking herd sooner and in prime condition for a productive future. I’m convinced we have made the right move and will be more profitable as a result,” says Tom.