Healthy animals, happy farmers


Megan and Shane Birchall

What has traditionally been problematic terrain on which to graze newly weaned calves has proved no match for the calves raised over the past three years on a Rerewhakaaitu dairy farm, just south of Rotorua.

June and Shane Birchall have been working their 280 hectare farm for the past 33 years and have seen many of their calves struggle to transition to grass due to the steep and awkward terrain.

“Of the 280 hectares, only about 40 hectares is mowable. The rest is rolling, with  steep sidelings,” says Shane.

After a change in rearing practices from grain-based calf products to fibre-based feed, the farm’s young stock have been going from strength-to-strength over the past three seasons.The Birchalls are no longer experiencing problems with animals transitioning to pasture.

“It’s traditionally been difficult to graze young stock on parts of the farm, but for the past three seasons we’ve had calves that are happy to go straight to grass after weaning. They don’t hang around the gate or swarm the farm vehicles waiting to be fed – they’re just straight out there.

“Our daughter Megan, who works and lives  on the farm, has been rearing our calves using a feed programme from Fiber Fresh for the past three spring seasons. . Although it involves a bit more time and patience in the beginning, the  results have proven worth it.

“The main thing to remember is they don’t appear to be eating a lot to begin with – which can be worrisome and disheartening – but if their faeces appear green in colour they are actually eating enough. If you perservere, they really get a taste for it after a couple of weeks.”

Shane says the Fiber Fresh calves are bigger and healthier than traditionally raised calves as they do not experience the same weaning check and transition onto the farm’s steep terrain much easier.

In addition, last season the farm saw a record in-calf rate in their heifers that were raised under the Fiber Fresh system, with 83% of our heifers in calf in six weeks and 96% in nine weeks.

“A fibre-based product is similar to what cows are supposed to eat – grass. After a few trials, it was a no-brainer which path to take going forward.”

The Birchall’s are currently milking 480 cows, with plans to increase the milking platform and increase numbers to 550 next season. They rear approximately 200 heifer calves each year, selling the surplus 60 in the Autumn, and winter 140 yearlings.

“Even through the harsh 2012-2013 drought, these animals continued to work the hills – and are on target to yet again be the biggest heifers to be calved in the past 33 years.

“It costs a lot of money to raise a calf, but now that we can breed bigger, healthier young stock, with large stomachs, big through the ribs and a huge drive to eat, this has to be a huge benefit for the future of our herd.”

Shane’s advice to anyone interested in trialling the Fiber Fresh programme would be to “stick at it”. He says that although it can take some time  to get the calves interested, it is worth the effort.

“It’s an education process for both the calves and the farmers and the end product is far superior.”