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If it was easy, everyone would be doing it!

Margaret Finlay - 08 April 2013

Daisy the cowThe Rainton dairy project has hit its first major hurdle. The calves from the autumn calvers have demonstrated that although 10 to 15 litres of milk a day is more than enough for them - and up to 10 litres a day more than they would get in some conventional rearing systems - they will drink as much as the cow can produce. Based on the milk production records for the individual cows from last year, this can be up to thirty litres a day in some cases!! The calves are looking fantastically well on it as you might imagine, but Dad's figures have shown that the farm will literally be bankrupt by the end of the year if we continue with the current system. 

There are a few major factors that are not up and running in the new farm system - notably the anaerobic digestion (AD) - and we have no beef going out to help support the costs of our transition period. So the plan is to suspend the full time suckling system, just to try and recover some footing financially, and re-visit the whole approach in the not too distant future.
Dad was basing his initial projections and calculations on some Canadian data that seemed to suggest that if you can get the cows to produce about 30 litres a day, the calves will do really well with 15 litres and there will be 15 litres left for collection in the parlour. It seems our Scottish calves are a greedy bunch of bottomless pits when it comes to ad-lib milk on tap, so a new strategy is required.
Personally I think restricted access suckling for the first 2 or 3 months might work best as I’ve come across some data in my own research on the subject, which suggests calves will comfortably consume 20% of their body weight in milk on a daily basis! So with an average birth weight of 45kg, and an average daily weight gain of 1kg, by 3 weeks of age, the calves will be quite content with 15 litres, but by 6 weeks of age, they’re taking nearly 20 litres and so on. Dad is still optimistic that he can make the creep areas the location of choice for the calves, and lure them away from the udders with extra-comfortable sleeping areas, toys and top quality hay and feeds.
At the moment the calves, which range in age from 3½ to nearly 5 months, are allowed unrestricted access to their mothers from after the afternoon milking, and are separated off as the cows go in for their morning milking. Studies have shown that cows can have up to 15% residual milk in their udder after milking and this milk is considerably higher in fat. So I don’t think the calves are too disappointed with this arrangement - it was the cows, particularly the heifers, who seemed most put out by the new arrangement, and there was a lot of angry roaring for the first few days! The cows and calves can still see each other and interact through gates etc. As you might imagine, morning milking doesn’t take very long, as there is barely a trickle left in the udders!
From a research point of view (looking for a silver lining!), it’s convenient to have a suckle system autumn group of calves to directly compare to a bucket raised spring group. We can compare final calf growth rates, disease levels, cost of rearing the two groups, etc. 
And although the experience has been somewhat disheartening, we observed a great deal of positives within the system. The calves are big and chunky, curious, confident and seemingly content. The cows are relaxed, there’s no bullying, the whole building where the cattle are housed was peaceful, the general ‘vibe’ was very positive. Fortunately for us there are no time limits in terms of getting the system up and running smoothly, but there are also no models to follow, or a wealth of information about such systems for us to access. So it’s suck it and see at the moment - watch this space!!

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.

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Margaret Finlay
19 April 2013 20:28

P.S. How many cattle do you have in your herd of Jerseys? Do you use a restricted suckling system yourselves?

Margaret Finlay
19 April 2013 20:26

And Beatrice, that sounds like a fascinating booklet. It would be wonderful if that sort of data and the experiences of the farmers were available in English. There seems to be so many more examples of innovative approaches to dairying on the continent - it's inspiring. I feel I need to go on a fact finding mission myself! I look forward to hearing how your trip goes, safe travels!

Margaret Finlay
19 April 2013 20:10

Thanks Lizzie!

19 April 2013 12:28

Hi Margaret, thanks for the reply; it was very interesting :) That is some growth rate! You are, of course, spot on about finding the happy medium. Hope the poorly pets are recovering well and all the best!

Beatrice Krehl
17 April 2013 13:58

There are quite a few dairy farms in Switzerland and Germany practising mother based calf rearing systems. Last year the Swiss Research Centre (FiBL) published a brochure (in German) with the title Muttergebundene Kaelberaufzucht in der Milchviehhaltung. There is a list of the development of the natural behaviour of the calves from birth up to 5 months old and what that means for the practice. Followed by descriptions by different systems that are practised on dairy farms with a list of advantages and disadvantages or challenges of these systems. Then there is a presentation of different rearing systems on selected farms. For each of the farms is an overview of the farm and the layout, proceedings at milking time and chronological from the birth of a calf up to 16 weeks. Each farmer comments on the conditions for a successful functioning of the systems. I am planning a visit to the Research Centre and two of the involved farms at the end of the month to discuss the options. At Waltham Place we keep the calves also for 4 - 6 months with their mums and don't get much milk when the calves are not shut away over night. If somebody could translate the FiBL brochure that might give you some ideas and I hope to come back from my trip with more information.

Margaret Finlay
16 April 2013 13:03

Hi Lizzie, have had a busy few days tending to poorly pets but I've had a good think about your questions and suggestions and will try and tackle them all as best I can. Cattle, like most other mammals, evolved to provide enough milk for their offspring for as long as it took their babies to adapt to, and start taking in sufficient quantities of vegetation to support themselves. By which stage the mother would probably be preparing to have another calf and would be diverting nutritive resources into foetus development, rather than milk production, further encouraging the previous offspring to find food elsewhere. Wild cattle, of which there are none any more, only domestic, wouldn't have the genetic capability or the high energy/quality feeding they require to produce today's expected yields. Therefore the calf only had access to maybe 6 or so litres a day and was therefore hungry enough to start grazing as soon as possible. Cattle today can readily produce 30 to 40 litres a day and although the calves are 'able' to start looking elsewhere for food by just 2 weeks of age, the question is, with all this delicious, warm, plentiful milk on tap, why should they!? Like babies, calves drinking capacity increases as they age, so if the milk is there, they will nurse more frequently, and for longer, rather than start to graze themselves. I believe infants are introduced to solid type food from 6 months old, but apparently they can survive (although I'm not sure how healthy they would be, maybe it depends on the quality of the mother's milk?) for over a year on a breast milk exclusive diet. So the calves will preferentially drink milk over eating grass or grain, and this extra milk intake translates in to impressive growth rates of around 1.1kg a day. A whole kilogram of new cells in 24 hours! I think you're right that we need to think of a way to quench their thirst with milk substitutes, their suckling instinct is VERY strong, so perhaps an alternative they can drink from an artificial nipple. Of course I suspect that for as long as they have the option of getting fresh milk from mum, any alternative is going to come in a poor second, but it may well take the edge off their hunger, and satisfy their sucking instincts.The hind milk - over 10% of the total yield given in the milking parlour - is, as you say, higher in fats and calories, and is what they calves would primarily get when they are let back in with their mothers after milking. And it likely doesn't quench their 'thirst' even if it does supply them with a good chunk of their nutritional needs.Some modern dairy units do milk their cows three times a day, and it does give them a higher total milk yield. However, they do, as you suggest then require more feed concentrates, you have the added labour and energy costs of an extra milking, and you're really pushing the cows to produce the absolute maximum. Which brings with it its own set of problems, primarily increased health problems in the cows. The painful conditions of lameness and mastitis are both more common in high yielding cows, probably because they are bred and encouraged to divert everything they get in to milk production, at the expense of their general health. Cows forced to perform at this level have short lives - as you can imagine, 'burn-out' happens within a few years. The average age of cattle in a modern, high yielding dairy unit is 4.5 years old - they go in to the milking herd at around 2 years old. In our herd the average age is closer to 7.5 years, and so increasing the cow's production is not really something we're looking to do. A happy medium of happy and healthy cows, happy and satisfied calves, and enough milk to sell at the end of the day (a happy farmer!), is likely going to best achieved by some sort of minimally restricted access for the milkaholic calves! All the best, Margaret.

Margaret Finlay
12 April 2013 21:05

Hi Lizzie, thanks for your comments! What an interesting comparison to make. I shall have to give the questions a bit more thought - it's Friday evening and I've run out of steam after a very busy few days at work! Will get back to you soon though. Best wishes :)

Margaret Finlay
12 April 2013 20:37

Hi Oliver, thanks for your comment. And for the link. You're right, our exposure to homeopathy was somewhat limited in vet school, and I have to confess that I don't have a great deal of faith in the approach. I suspect it has a similar success rate to, and shares a common scientific basis with, the 'placebo effect'. I'm a lot more convinced by herbal remedies, but I can't say I'm familiar with any that might have helped in this situation. Thanks again for your interest :)

12 April 2013 12:45

Margaret, lovely to hear how the experiment is going! We came to your farm last year with the toddler who 'liked' the puddle in the open topped AD. Wierd comparison maybe, but while feeding my baby, and trying to build up freezer stocks of milk, my production more than kept up with demand. Now we are not talking 30litres here (!) and my baby would stop when he was full, which your calves seem not to do? Two pieces of advice I was given was to equally spread feedings out to build up milk production, and the first milk that comes is to quench thirst, and the hind milk is the really fatty calorific stuff but it doesn't quench thirst as effectively. So two thoughts from a someone completely ignorant on dairy farming (so excuse me if these are stupid suggestions). Firstly, have you thought about 3-4 milkings a day, with a good few hours between each one and alternating calf/ machine to allow the cow to build her milk stocks up again? It would be more labour intensive, but might save time on bucket feeding and enable her to up her production (only so much volume in an udder...). She would be hungrier though. The second thought is that if the calves are just getting the hind milk, they might become more thirsty and therefore take more milk. Could you feed water to remedy this and decrease their milk intake? Just thoughts! Hope you find an equilibrium that works for the farm and the cows soon and keep up the great work :)

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