With 800 calves on the ground in a short timeframe, management, planning and record keeping are critical to the health of the animals and people involved on the McRae dairy farms in Gippsland.
For Nita McRae, losing six calves out of a total 1000 last year is a testament to her hands-on oversight of the calving operation at Nambrok, Vic.
Stewart and Nita McRae operate three dairy farms at Nambrok, Sale, Vic, and Fulham, Vic, milking 1100 cows. They have an outpaddock at Stradbroke, Vic, to raise heifers and steers.
The main herd is milked in a 50-bay rotary dairy at Nambrok. The balance of the herd is milked on the other farms in a 30-a-side swingover and a 14-a-side swingover. All the dairy sheds have automatic cup removers.
The herd comprises mostly Friesian-cross cows and incorporates a Holstein stud. The cows are artificially inseminated using the Holstein semen sourced from the stud, along with Friesian, Jersey, Normande and Montbeliarde semen. The McRaes also use embryo transplants in select milking cows from their Holstein stud herd.
Nita and Stewart McRae expect progeny on the ground from late July ù with 80 per cent of the Nambrok herd calving in spring and 20 per cent in autumn and all the cows on the other two farms calving in spring.
Mrs McRae raises all the calves. In 2017-18, she reared 1000 calves, with six deaths.
"I traditionally raise all the heifers and steers," she said. Non-replacement heifers are sold at point-of-calving.
Steers are sold at 14-months to two years of age, depending on the season, normally directly to a feedlot at 400 kilograms.
Last year Mrs McRae diversified her marketing. "The last spring-drop, I raised them to 250kg and sent some small lots to Koonwarra saleyards to sell to local grass-finishers," she said. "I just wanted to catch smallholding farmers to see how that went."
Financially it was worthwhile until the market prices dropped. "It was a good venture, but then the season turned poor and the market was flooded with young cattle," Mrs McRae said.
"It costs $350 to get a calf to 100kg, their weaned weight. That includes $70 costed as labour, all the milk out of the vat valued at the autumn price and fresh bedding each year."
The process to raise the calf to weaned weight is quite methodical, although hands-on. It is also a well-oiled machine, with everyone cognisant of their roles and responsibilities ù from the trainee calf rearer to the seasoned workers.
That understanding is because of the team approach taken by Mrs McRae, with well-briefed and trained employees, supplemented by methodical record keeping.
Mr McRae takes observations recorded in paddock and in the calf shed and puts them into a comprehensive computerised database.
Training is encouraged. Mrs McRae and the other two members of her calf-rearing team have undertaken Dairy Australia calf-rearing courses.
"The DA workshop made me realise procedures are important," Mrs McRae said.
"I train everyone for their jobs. Training is also about forward planning on where you want to get to.
"Because we all did the workshop, it put us all on the same page."
A diary is used to plan and record all activity and as a way of passing on messages. This information is then distilled into the farm's computerised management system by Mr McRae.
Systems help records
The heifers are synchronised for calving. All heifers and cows receive rota corona vaccination, with an annual booster given six weeks before calving is expected to begin.
"Because I rear so many calves, rotavirus is a risk; but since we've been vaccinating, I don't get it any more," Mrs McRae said.
The business implements a twice-a-day round up of calves in the paddock.
"When the cow has a calf in the paddock, we put a collar on the calf," Mrs McRae said. "That collar stays on the calf until it is ear tagged and permanently identified and clearly connected to the cow in our records system."
The pick-up man also records information including where and how he found the calf, if he saw it born and how it was born, if a breech birth, what it looked like, if there were multiple births to the one cow, any deformities on the calf, the size of the calf, and the mother's ear tag. "Even a dead calf gets a collar on it," Mrs McRae said.
The batch of calves is delivered to the shed and their umbilical cords are sprayed. The trailer is hosed out every day with hot water.
"Everything at this stage is about infection control, identification and teaching the calf to drink," Mrs McRae said.
The calf receives two drinks of two litres of colostrum. After each drink, a piece of hay bale is used to record the event. This year, after the first colostrum was given, a pink hayband was tied loosely around the calf's neck. After the second colostrum, a red hayband was used as a record in the same way.
"I use a refractometer to check the milk," Mrs McRae said. "Every cow goes on a bucket for her first milkings and this milk is used for the calves. It's very fiddly but it pays off."
The colostrum is fed via a bottle. "We've got to teach the calf to drink, so we might as well begin at the start," Mrs McRae said. "The earlier the calf comes into the shed, the easier it is to teach them to drink."
Any treatments are recorded on a clipboard, hanging from the front of each pen. A yellow collar is also utilised to indicate that a calf is in a treatment program.
"It usually simple, like an infected naval, requiring penicillin," she said. "Or pneumonia-like symptoms.
"But every one of us can see visually that a calf is being treated for something and the record is there to follow and implement and update."
There are also isolation pens for sick calves, where the calf remains until it is well. "Then they return to the group they came out of," Mrs McRae said.
The two purpose-built calf sheds include a sunny aspect during the day, with wind protection, good ventilation with 12 metres from ground level to the roof, a cement floor that slopes to enable urine and wash runoff and installed water points.
The bays ù at nine metres deep and four metres wide ù are sized to enable a tractor to enter and pick up the used bedding. The side fences and gates can be dismantled from each pen. There is a purpose-built hayrack on each pen and adlib water is supplied by a bore.
Four truck trailer loads of wood shavings are brought in to provide bedding.
It has taken considerable investment, planning and patience to achieve the purpose-built sheds, but Mrs McRae is pleased with the design.
"Crypto is manageable in this system, but adlib water makes a difference," Mrs McRae said.
"If a calf gets a fever, they dehydrate pretty quickly. If we provide adlib water, we've noticed they'll drink."
By the time the calf is four days old, it should be drinking with the rest of its group. From day three, the calves start drinking fortified milk: four litres of vat milk mixed with up to 125 grams/day of powdered milk for each calf.
"I add the slurry in with the vat milk, so it mixes in well," Mrs McRae said.
Feeding the calves is very hands-on, which is why the dedicated team makes a difference to the system.
"It's important to eyeball the calves every day, make sure they all get on the teat and make sure the milk is going up the tube," Mrs McRae said.
The calves start eating muesli on day two. Once established, the muesli is mixed with pellets. Adlib cereal hay, locked in preharvest in a normal season and feed tested, is available at each calf pen from day one.
This year Mrs McRae is trialling a probiotic. "It's an all-natural product and I put a good dollop of it in their milk. I'm actually pretty happy with it," she said.
Sick animals receive 100 millilitres of the probiotic in their bottle of milk.
At four weeks of age, the calves at disbudded ù done under a local anaesthetic and performed by HiCo technicians. A hair sample is taken from each calf and is genetically tested.
By this age, the first seven-in-one vaccination and Baycox to offset the risk of coccidiosis have been administered.
Each calf is expected to be eating one kilogram of standard baby calf pellets.
At four to six weeks, the calves are shifted into paddocks where they have access to adlib cereal hay, pellets, grazing and water. From 10 days old until the calves are 100kg, they receive milk once a day. At 100kg, they are weaned and taken to the out-paddock at Stradbroke.
Cleaning is a priority for the business and a woman is employed specifically for this role each day. During the week, every piece of feeding apparatus is cleaned and the pad at the front of the shed is hosed daily.
Every day, the woman has to spray the bedding, troughs and pen rails with Activate and clean the water troughs. "We've found Activate wasn't harmful to the animals," Mrs McRae said.
Once the calves are in the paddock, the shed bays are cleaned out of mulch and washed with hypo.
Nita McRae is the lynchpin in the system. "I rear the calves well because I love them and value them," Mrs McRae said. "The reason it works here is because one person is here all the time."D