From Precision to Production

Rearing calves to reach their full potential in growth and production takes systems and precision according to Chris and Dana Sutton of Palmerston North.

Having met at Telford Agricultural collage at the age of eighteen the couple quickly started their successful career and at twenty-one they had invested in their own herd and stepped into the world of share milking.

This year Dana reared 200 calves on her own but wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I think it’s a better when I see the calves everyday and I can get my eye in and know where things are at.  I know how much FiberGain they’re consuming and when they go outside, I can make sure they’re going into the best paddock with shelter and doing well before they go to the grazier.”

An increase this year to 300 hectares of effective land has allowed Chris and Dana to increase their milking herd to 800.

To ensure that their future herd is in peak condition, Dana has thorough systems in place even before day one.

“We Rotavac all of our cows before they calve and that passes onto the calf through their first milk. Colostrum plays a huge role in a calf’s life, we bought a tester from Shoof and that really took the guess work out of it for us. We have a colostrum cart which keeps it fresh and we test regularly, so that we can give our calves the best quality colostrum. If I’m not happy with it, I always have some of my best stuff frozen, so I can pull it out and give it to them.

“Once the calves have had a couple of days in the shed I look at their structure and body type and try to put them in pens with similar calves so that the big ones don’t dominate the little ones and I can compare them to one another. They’ll stay in those pens until they’re ready to go outside, I try really hard not to swap them after that and only tend to if one of them isn’t doing well.”

Keeping feeders separate and clean has helped Dana avoid any spread of illnesses.

“Cleaning and sterilising is a big part of the routine, after every meal the feeders get rinsed and once a week they get disinfected. During the colder months it’s not so bad but come October when things start to warm up, it will grow some pretty funky stuff if even a small amount of milk is left in it.

“We also don’t move the feeders between the pens, each feeder has a number that correlates to a pen and we make sure that they go back to where they’re supposed to. It not only speeds up the feeding process, but it also stops any potential spread of bugs.”

One of Dana’s golden rules is that anything that comes into the shed stays in the shed until it’s reached target weight.

“We use the Dairy NZ Bible, so for our cross bred herd we’re looking for anything between 85-95 kilos weaning off milk and leaving the shed providing they’re eating enough FiberGain. It’s not a target time but target weight.

Regular weighing is a must do in Dana’s shed,

“We first run them over the scales between four to six weeks so that we can see where they’re at and I can get my eye in or if I’m not happy with something. After that we do them once a week, especially when they start getting close to weaning. The day we wean them is the day we put them outside provided that it’s not torrential rain.

Being able to wean them in the sheds and only feeding them FiberGain in the paddock makes life easier later on.

“The beauty of FiberGain is that they don’t get a weaning check, they go out and they know what they’re supposed to do. At our last farm when we were share milking we were feeding calf pellets and the calves would go out and just run around for the first few days because they had no clue what to do and they could lose five to ten kilos.

“We fed Fiber Fresh for two years and then our boss, who paid for half the feed wanted to go for the cheaper option, a calf pellet. But as soon as we got on to this farm, we knew exactly what we were going to feed.

Dana and Chris aren’t averse to stepping outside the traditional square.

“Before we came here, we raised everything on wood peelings and chip, but now we use pebbles. The reason behind this is that the water table is so high that you can quickly become swamped. In order to combat this, we had really good drainage laid down so that everything drains out the back of the pen and then placed a fine river stone on top,” says Chris.

Dana noticed the change immediately,

“It’s amazing what a difference it makes, we just don’t get any virus or bacteria scours. We also don’t get nutritional scours which is partly due to using Fiber Fresh and we also do things such as warming the milk. Interestingly the fibre in Fiber Fresh keeps the calves manure nice and firm and means the pens are much cleaner.  When they are on a grain it all turns to slop and the pens get mucker much quicker especially when they’re on post peelings.”

Dana’s attention to detail plays a huge factor in the calves’ future success.

“We have really good fertility rates with under five percent empty. Having the heifers at 400 kilos or above for their first calving is really important because they don’t drop that condition through calving, they milk well and then they get back into calf.

“With AI you often find that lighter conditioned cows struggle to cycle and therefore have difficulty getting into calf, whereas we don’t have that because our heifers meet our targets, and this means we can get a really compact calving.”

Hung proudly in the Sutton Family home is their mission statement which sums up their practices well.

“We want to focus on animal health and pasture management, we aim to allow each animal to reach its full potential in growth and production.”

“Our calves are everything to us, they’re our future. So, if we can feed them the best feed and have the best systems possible in place then we’re setting them up to reach this potential.”