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Outdoor Calf Rearing

Reduce Costs and Disease

This month I have been out and about looking at different calf rearing systems being adopted by practicing farmers. One of the most efficient and unusual is that used by Graeme and Patrick Cock who farm in partnership at Younghouse Farm near Ashburton in Devon. Graeme is the Chairman of Mole Valley Farmers. The Younghouse Farm business extends to 600 Ha of grass and arable crops, which supports a 600+ cow Hemsington dairy herd and followers.

Outdoor Calf Rearing reduces costs and diseaseOne important factor in any dairy enterprise is the quality of the dairy heifers coming into the milking herd. This is also the case for the Hemsington Herd, where two year calving is the target. Once a day feeding has been used for almost two decades, but has changed from feeding in individual pens, to groups of 8 and now mainly the ‘milk bar’ system is used.

Graeme explains

“We needed a simple system, capable of rearing large numbers of calves and as we calve heavily from mid June onwards, we capitalise on a well proven New Zealand practice of keeping the calves outdoors. My wife comes from New Zealand and I had seen the system work out there, as well as having seen it used in the UK’’.

The Cock’s also keep all the bull calves which are reared alongside the heifers, separated after weaning, and sold as finished steers at 20 /24 months.

"The key driver for the interest in the system was one of huge cost savings and potential health benefits. Both the heifers and steers need to grow at the optimum rate, in order to achieve their potential at two years of age, whether they enter the milking herd or are sent to the abattoir for beef” says Graeme.

Early Management

Essentially, the calves are removed from the cow quickly, but care is taken to ensure they have taken enough colostrum during the first 48 hours. All the calves are kept inside for the first 10-14 days, whilst they learn to suckle from an artificial teat and are collected into groups of 38. They receive 3-3.5 litres per day of warm milk, which is always a blend of waste milk and powder milk. Colostrum and high cell count milk is used and reinforced with ‘Maverick Once A Day Mix powder’ at 50 grams a litre. The balance of the volume needed is the ‘Maverick Once A Day with water’ powder mixed at 200 grams a litre. Starter pellets are available ad-lib virtually from day one and the pellets have ‘Deccox’ added, which has been a big help in controlling coxidiocys. All calves are tagged and dehorned and carefully matched for size, before they go out into small paddocks of about 1 or 2ha if possible. The pasture is generally a 3-5 year ley, which has no fertiliser and provides fresh palatable forage and fibre, rather than feeding hay or straw.

Dairy Enterprise | Early Management | Mole Valley FarmersThe ‘Milk Bar’ holds 500 litres, enough liquid feed for up to 170 calves and is towed to the paddocks by a quad bike. The tank is calibrated, so when each group of 38 calves have suckled 110 litres, it is moved to the next batch of calves. Care is taken to monitor each calf and if one is seen to be falling behind, or getting ahead of its peers, it is moved up or down a batch as necessary.


Weaning takes place on a gradual basis over the period of a week. From around 13 weeks of age, they are slowly introduced to a maize gluten, barley ration, which is mixed on the farm. All the young stock remain outdoors, if summer or early autumn born. Feeding for the first winter is grazed grass and the gluten/barley mix, which is fed at 1.5 to 3kg/head/day depending on grass volumes and weather. In the second winter they are in cubicles on easy feed grass silage.

Calves born later in the year are reared inside, still using the Milk Bar system with the same group sizes and are turned out in spring as early as possible. Concentrates are cut at the earliest opportunity. Good grazing is the key to the system, not only for good growth rates but also for cost and health benefits. It could be practised in many businesses and probably from group sizes of about 12 upwards for smaller herds.

Louise Murphy, Calf Specialist

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