Successful calf rearing has always been the bane of dairy and beef farmers. Sometimes a batch of calves can be put through a shed without a hitch. But then, just when everything seems to be going well, the scourge of pneumonia and scours can kick in with a vengeance.
Calves are fickle animals. Partly, this is due to the fact that their lung size is relatively small compared to the rest of their bodies. But, one fundamental fact remains constant: these animals must receive the best possible start, if they are to reach their performance targets in later life.
Over the years, calf rearing systems have been designed that have superimposed man’s way of seeing things on these young animals. And this has as much to do with the design of calf houses as it has to do with the feeding strategies that newborn calves are put on.
The opposite way of looking at this challenge is to come up with a scheme which gives the calf his or her continuous choice when it comes to the environment they wish to live in. And according to Barry O’Loughlin, of Gorteade Cow Care, this is exactly what calf igloos can do, when incorporated into the design of a bespoke calf house.
“A combination of igloos, straw bedded pens and an effective roof over the penned area can deliver the required degree of fresh air, heat, ventilation and freedom from drafts which calves need to survive,” he said.
“The calves are kept warm while the unique dome shape of the Igloo allows rapid air exchange via four chimneys. Meanwhile, the calves are well ventilated without sitting in a draught. As the wind flows over the dome shape, it sucks stale air away and drives improved ventilation.
“The versatile Calf Igloo system can help solve this problem as ‘same age’ calves can be kept in their group and can be separated from the next age group, without a physical wall, a large air gap, or kept in a separate veranda.”
Barry added: “The benefits of single calf hutches are well established, but they have the single disadvantage of being labour intensive. The Calf Igloo provides all the benefits of group housing with improved ventilation and labour saving.
“The igloo on its own can represent an important starting point for farmers, who are stuck for space. But the long term solution is to incorporate the igloos within a simple roof-based system, which will provide protection both farmer and calves from the elements.”
Barry recently hosted a trip to the Midlands of England for a number of Irish farmers, the focal point of which was a visit to two farms on which the igloo calf rearing system is in day-to-day use.
Fred Simcock is the owner of Woolfield Farm, near Ledbury in Herefordshire. He milks 600 Holstein/Friesian cows, averaging 10,500l. The farm is home to six igloos.
“We are calving the year round, which means that calves are being born every day of the year. In the past, disease build-up in our calf houses would have been a regular occurrence,” he said.
“Given this backdrop, it didn’t take much to persuade me to consider the installation of an igloo-based calf house.
“And it has been a tremendous success. Each igloo can facilitate 15 calves. There are six in total in the new unit, which also includes the requisite straw bedded pens and a roofing system, which keeps the straw dry and allows for optimal ventilation and air flow.
“Since installing the new system, calf mortality rates have dropped to 1 per cent. We are currently able to wean our heifers at eight weeks of age, on the back of liveweight gains averaging 1.2 kg/day.”
Fred is quick to point out that colostrum management is fundamentally important, when it comes to rearing calves successfully.
“Each new born calf will get 5l of colostrum immediately after birth and a total of 8L within the first 24 hours of life” he said.
“We will also feed a milk replacer with an extremely high solids content. An elite quality pelleted starter feed is made available ad-lib from day four. By taking this approach, it means that we are well on the way to achieving a 24 month first calving date.”
He added: “The igloo system allows the calves to choose where they want to be at any time of the day or night. The igloos provide warmth on the coldest winter’s day. They also offer a high degree of cooling on the hottest summer’s day. And of course, the calves can make full use of the straw bedded pens in front of the igloos, as required.
“One of the key issues to securing the success of the igloos is the drainage system put in place. This must ensure that the urine is always flowing away from the calves.”
Joff Roberts runs a commercial calf rearing unit near Leominster in Herefordshire. He has been using the igloo system for a number of years and has found it to work tremendously well.
“I am working with a mix of calves that have been brought direct from their farms of birth or have been bought at auction,” he said.
“As a result, the disease risk which they bring with them is colossal.
“Guaranteeing the highest biosecurity standards, once the calves arrive here, is crucial. And the igloos have succeeded in delivering this.
“I rear 800 calves annually and have been able to reach liveweights of up to 145kg at 11 weeks of age. The calves normally arrive at two weeks of age averaging 55kg. At the present time we are securing average daily liveweight gains of 1.13kg.
“The straw bedding is cleaned out after each batch of calves. I have recently invested in a second igloo house, which is based on a veranda design.
“As the veranda is fully mobile, it allows me change the layout of the unit, as required, in order to meet fluctuations in calf numbers.”