The white stuff...
Margaret Finlay - 26 February 2013
It’s hard to believe that the first calf born in to our new system is now nearly three and a half months old! Normally dairy calves would find themselves taken away from their mothers within 48 hours of birth, confined to a small pen for the first couple of weeks of life, and then mixed with at least five or six other calves of the same age in larger pens. But the 36 calves born here over the past few months are still enjoying having milk on demand as they grow up side-by-side with their mothers.
Traditionally, on conventional dairy farms, calves are usually bucket fed milk (generally made up using a powdered formula) twice a day. They are fed milk for just 8 weeks before being ‘weaned’ on to a diet of hay or straw and a grain-based concentrate feed. On organic dairy farms, where the milk fed to the calves is usually fresh, whole cows’ milk, the calves are normally weaned off milk after three months. The standard volume of milk fed to these calves is about five litres a day (2½ litres per feed).
We have estimated that the calves here, who are given free access to their mother’s milk 24 hours a day, will consume some 10 to 15 litres a day! This is normally the point where agricultural advisors would throw up their hands in despair and say “SEE!? It’s not going to work!” And they would be right. IF we were purely a dairy enterprise, but we will soon have some cracking beef animals from the dairy calves. When we compare the calves born in October 2012 who are being suckled by their mothers to the calves that are 6 months older, but were bucket fed, then the younger suckled calves win hands down - we really will have prime beef from a dairy calf!
However, because we’d rather like some milk to be left over for us to collect, we have been trying to tempt the calves in to a couple of creep areas where haylage and grain pellets are on offer. Calves also need to start taking on some solid foods to help their digestive systems develop and mature. In the old system, where calves were removed from their mothers and given restricted access to milk, they would start looking around for alternatives very quickly. Being bored and hungry in their little pens, with milk just twice a day, eating hay and pellets must have seemed like quite an attractive proposition. Needless to say, they were somewhat indifferent to the milk alternatives on offer here initially. So the challenge was to find ways of making the creep areas in to attractive ‘hang-outs’ for the bovine youth.
As many of you probably know, cows in general, but calves in particular, are very curious animals - anything new or different and they’re right there to investigate. So we spent some time constructing various novelty attractions with some home-sourced and other more ‘exotic’ components. The calf below is enjoying a gallop up and down the corridor at one end of the shed. Bits of plastic pipe on a rope proved to be a big hit! But their favourite toy has turned out to be a space hopper hung on a rope.
There was an unfortunate incident involving a large exercise ball and the automatic scraper. The ball had been judged large enough to just bounce off the gates at each end of the creep areas as the scraper passed underneath them. But it turned out that one of the feed troughs hanging on the gate was at just the right angle so that the ball got wedged firmly underneath it, and as the scraper determinedly continued on its way, the exercise ball lifted the gate, haylage heck and all, up off it’s hinges and sent the whole lot crashing down on top of the scraper, shearing off one the bolts there. Fortunately there was no major damage and the most impressive thing is that the exercise ball survived intact! Although it is no longer in the creep area…
Margaret grew up on her family's 850 acre mixed organic farm, home of Cream o' Galloway ice cream, in south west Scotland. Having graduated from Glasgow Vet School in 2007, she now divides her time between working as a small animal vet and helping out on the family farm. The latest project at the farm is a revolutionary new low-input dairy system.