If it was easy, everyone would be doing it!
The 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 Davids'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 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.
David 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 percent 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!!