By Debbie James

A Ceredigion dairy farm is housing newborn calves in converted intermediate bulk containers (IBCs) as a low cost and effective alternative to calf hutches.

Liam and Annie James have been farming at Hafod Farm near Llandysul since 2014 when they bought the 48 hectare (ha) holding in partnership with Annie’s father, Clive Lott.

They have been building cow numbers to the 150 they milk today so ensuring that every heifer replacement they rear is healthy and achieves breeding weight targets to calve at 24 months is key.

Youngstock are individually housed for the first week in IBCs which were bought for £30 each.

It takes Liam less than half an hour to convert these, which includes removing the bottom and one of the sides and fitting a wood board along the front to help retain the straw bedding.

He says the units are perfect for the job.

“We keep them in these until we are confident they are suckling well and when we need to clean them out we lift the IBCs up and the pad of dirty straw is left behind so it is an easy job to keep them clean.’’

Calves are fed their own dam’s colostrum for the first 48 hours and are then reared on powdered milk replacer. To protect the herd from Johnes there is no feeding of waste milk.

After a week calves are penned in groups of 10 in an open-fronted mono-pitch youngstock building consisting of six 15-foot bays where they are housed until weaning.

They are then turned out to grass to graze ahead of the cows.

“We want them on the best grass so that they grow well,’’ says Annie.

Through the grazing season calves are fed 2kg/head of concentrates but they don’t receive any supplementary feed when they are housed in the following winter because they have grown well by that point.

A neighbour rears the heifers for the second grazing season, until they are 19 months old, when they return in calf.

As there are no suitable handling facilities at this farm, the heifers are served to Saler and Simmental stock bulls which are tested for fertility six weeks before service.

Although heifers currently calve at 24 months the James’s are considering switching to 21 months.

“We calved a few down at 21 months this year after a bull broke in with the heifers and we have been happy with their progress, they have longer for recovery before the next service and are in milk for longer,’’ says Liam.

“They were around 300kg when they were served and were in calf to an Aberdeen Angus bull. As long as they are big enough and strong enough to take the bull, we are considering calving others at this age this year.’’

One area the couple have struggled with is getting sufficient numbers of female calves – of the calves born this spring only a quarter were heifers.

They have used sexed semen in the past but at £30-£32 a straw compared to £12-£15 for conventional semen and with a 15 per cent reduction in fertility they don’t believe the benefits outweighed the cost and poorer conception.

Cows produce an average annual milk yield of 5,400 litres at 4.7 per cent butterfat and 3.5 per cent protein, achieved from less than one tonne of cake per cow.

The herd is mostly British Friesian with some Jersey-crosses and Norweigian Reds, calving in a spring block from March 1 for 12 weeks with milk sold to Arla.

“We bought 40-50 Jersey-crosses as calves when we came here but we don’t use Jersey bulls, British Friesians and Norwegian Reds are used for the first six weeks of service,’’ says Annie.

“The Norwegian red seemed like a really good cross to bring in, some of the Friesians we had bought were quite stocky and beefy, the Norwegian red brought in some dairy influence without the size of the Holstein and they are good on health traits too.’’