Three years to prove it. So does this system work?

By David Finlay

We gave ourselves three years to prove our cow with calf system can work.  That three years is now up, so does it work? To answer that question I’d like to introduce you to a cow called One-Forty-Four, because that is her name.

Folk think that by identifying an animal by a number we are removing that animal’s individuality. Well, for us at least, this is far from the truth. Sure, we could give them all names like Daisy or Esmerelda, or whatever, but when you have 140 of them, the names are quickly forgotten. That’s not to say we don’t have pet names for some of them but mine are probably different from Charles’s and they’re not always complimentary! Oh, oh, here comes Old Grumpy – 117; or Wee Sweetie – 17 (she’s due next week and we reckon on twins, she’s like a barrel!).  And in case we forget their number, there’s a freeze-brand on their rump and an electronic ID bracelet on their front ankle that speaks to the computer in the parlour and this pops up on the parlour screen. When you’ve been working with them from birth, it’s the character you relate to, not the number or name.

Anyhow, back to 144. She was one of the first calves to be born into the revolutionary cow-with-calf dairy system we are developing here at Rainton. She was born on the 5th November, Guy Faulks Day, 3 years ago and her mum was old 130, a steady, middle-of-the-road, Montbeliarde-cross cow. Her dad was a Swedish Red breed and she was conceived by artificial insemination. It is almost invariably the case that the calf out of a cross-bred cow takes on the characteristics of the pure-bred father and true to form, she looks like her dad.

She wasn’t referred to as 144 at this time because she hadn’t yet entered the milking herd, but every calf needs to be double tagged and registered with ‘the authorities’ who then issue a passport. Her official tag number is something or other…1719, or nineteen for short. And that was how we knew her in her early years.

Nineteen stayed with her mum, who we milked once-a-day, until early April 2017 and, as it was winter, she had never been outside. She didn’t get to be with her mum 24 hours a day all of this time. For about 6-8 weeks she was, but after that we start separating them overnight. They’re not taken out of the mums’ sight or hearing, just separated by a rail fence. The cows get a wee feed at night and we tidy the cow beds and put the calves into their quarters while their mums are distracted.

To be honest though, that first group of cows in the new system didn’t entirely trust us – this radically different way of doing things was as new to the cows as it was to us! Initially we had to lock the cows into the feed barrier to stop them running about and fussing over the calves, but as the winter wore on they soon learned and understood the new system and stopped bothering. They have never bothered since.

The reason we separate the cows and calves is two-fold. Firstly, when the calf is young they can’t drink all of their mum’s milk, so we can be sure of getting some, but after a couple of months they can. If their mum is a sharing cow, we can continue to get a reasonable share of the milk, but if she isn’t she will hang onto as much as she can. Separating overnight means we get at least some milk. The other reason is that when the calf is with its mum 24/7, they don’t eat solid food. Why would they, with mums milk on-tap whenever they want it? Overnight, when separated, the calf gets hungry and begins eating solids, this is good for developing their digestive system. They also build stronger peer-bonds, which helps greatly at weaning. This gradual transitioning at every stage of their lives is a key part of the success of this system. We depend on the cow and calf (and us!) being happy and content. This reduces stress and improves the productivity and efficiency of this method of dairying.

So, when 19 went out to grass she was fully weaned but stayed with her female peer group. We separate the males and females at this point because the young cattle can reach sexual maturity at 6 months and accidents can happen! Back then, in year one, we didn’t give them any supplementary feed so they grew much more slowly than when they were suckling their mums. That was a mistake and we now give the young cattle a mineralised (with balanced vitamins and minerals) Lucerne-based forage nut, which is a pellet made from alfalfa. We haven’t fed cereals for almost 2 years now to any stock on our farm.

When 19 was aged 18-20 months we introduced a young dairy bull to her group and 9 months later, in March of this year, out pops a beautiful little Monty calf whose tag number ended in 2001, so we called her One for short. We spend quite a bit of time getting the young heifers used to the milking parlour before they calve. Giving birth is a big enough stress on its own, so if they know the parlour noises and routines, that keeps the stress to a minimum.

Nineteen is now known as 144 and she has entered the milking herd for the first time as a young heifer and is as good as gold. She’s a real pet, but then she always was. She reared her calf through the summer and they were fully separated in late August. After weaning we milk the cows twice a day for a couple of months because the calves had effectively been doing the second milking when they were suckling.

One-Forty-Four, one of the first cows to be born in our cow with calf system, is now one of our top heifers. In fact, she and her peers are noticeably more productive than last year’s intake. Was this because they were reared in the new system and knew the ropes? I don’t know. Maybe somebody will tell us someday. Her calf is a wee cracker too and will join her mum in the herd in 18 months time.

So does this system work? I’m delighted to say with absolute certainty that it does, both for the cows and calves and for us! As for the bank manager? There is a bit to go before we get back to healthy profit, but after a pretty rocky start, we’re back on track and are increasingly confident, with your support, this could be a game-changer!

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You can read more about the detail of our cow with calf dairy farming system here.