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Complete solution for high-performing heifers (Oct 22)

Setting up a second unit to rear heifers has allowed one Lancashirebased herd to improve overall efficiency and performance. We spoke to the producers to find out more.


TEXT CLEMMIE GLEESON


When a small farm came onto the market just three miles from their unit at Hesketh End, at Chipping near Preston, father and son Michael and Chris Kenyon saw an opportunity to take their dairy business to the next level.


Having run a flying herd until that point, they were keen to start breeding their own replacements, and control the quality and health of heifers joining their Holstein herd. This additional unit offered the chance to do just that.


We were using beef semen across the herd, and selling all calves at three weeks old because there was no space to rear them on our unit. And we were buying in dairy heifer replacements to push up cow numbers,” explains Chris.


The second unit included 3.6 hectares of land plus farm buildings, which required investment, but it was an opportunity to create a youngstock rearing set-up, while mirroring Hesketh End as much as possible. It also became home for Chris and his wife Amy.


Sexed semen


The Kenyons switched to using Holstein sexed semen across the milking herd in 2015 and stopped buying in dairy replacements by early 2016. This meant an initial dip in numbers in the milking herd, from 200 to 170, but once home-bred heifers started coming through, herd size began to increase and has now reached 300 head. ForFarmers’ youngstock specialist Emma Moore began working with the Kenyons in 2019, and one of the first changes she suggested was the introduction of Calf Complete from day one. It’s an 18% protein short-cut nut that combines starch and digestible fibre. This supports rumen development, and minimises the risk of acidosis, while also promoting daily liveweight gain. It also contains Levucell yeast and supplies a full vitamins and mineral package.


Future milkers: the Kenyons are now breeding their own replacements


Prior to that a coarse mix was fed, but it didn’t promote optimal rumen development, particularly as calves were sorting the feed. There was some wastage too. On the back of trial work at Harper Adams University, Emma suggested switching to a calf nut, and intakes increased considerably.


“The larger 6mm nut helps to drive early concentrate intakes, particularly on units where whole milk or a high inclusion skim milk powder is fed,” she says. Younger calves have achieved higher intakes and this feed is balanced for energy, protein, fibre and minerals.


High intake


“During the first eight weeks we are aiming to move calves from what is essentially a monogastric animal to a ruminant – a high intake of concentrates as early as possible is crucial,” says Emma.


“Driving early intakes by introducing this nut has also made weaning easier because calves have better rumen development and are satisfied from concentrate alone when they stop drinking milk.”


The Kenyons noticed a slight dip in calf growth rates at between six and nine months of age. “We looked into it and Emma suggested that during that time we top dress rations, adding Calf Complete to lift energy density and protein levels,” explains Chris. “This kept growth rates consistent during this challenging period, and we’ve also seen age at first calving reduce from 30 months to between 22 and 24 months,” he adds.


Heifers are run in groups of 24 and remain in the same building until they are ready to calve down, which has eliminated bullying. “Heifers need time and space to feed and rest if they are to grow and perform well,” adds Michael. “So they also stay as a heifer group once they come back to Hesketh End. This means we can feed heifers and cows separately.”


In the short term, mitigating increasing input costs is a focus for the father-and-son team. With help from a nutrient management plan, which includes soil and slurry testing and the use of a dribble bar, they have managed to make best use of slurry and cut purchased nitrogen use by 50% this year.

With limited grass they are trialling using rotor-ground straw in youngstock rations. It is replacing 80% of the grass in the diet, and Chris believes it will be a lowercost feed that can also maintain growth rates. “Grinding straw creates a higher surface area for rumen bugs to break down and offers the scratch factor for rumen development,” adds Emma.


Cost effective


Herd average yield is around 10,000 litres, at 4.45% butterfat and 3.64% protein. “We could push them to produce more, but we would have to put a lot more in to see those extra litres, which wouldn’t be cost effective,” says Michael.


Managing 300 milkers, plus 300 followers, Michael and Chris have no plans to expand further but are instead focusing on fine-tuning herd management – particularly breeding.


“In 2021 we began ET work and genomic testing females, to change our focus from breeding more to breeding better,” explains Chris. “Genomic testing means we can be more selective, using sexed semen on the top 50% of the herd, and serving the rest of the herd with beef sires. “We are looking for longevity, as well as milk yield and solids,” adds Michael. “We want litres of milk, but breeding efficient and healthy cows is also important.”

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