Today our featured farmer is Karina Glass from Invergordon, in Northern Victoria. We’ll be speaking to her about fortified milk feeding and her five week weaning system for dairy calves. For those skeptics amongst us, we’ll also be setting up a video experiment so you can monitor their progress with your own eyes this autumn calving period.
Despite the cuteness of baby animals, most farmers I talk to agree that rearing dairy calves is a huge pain in the behind. Feeding calves costs not only milk and/or calf replacer but also headaches and time. It’s a struggle trying to ensure they have the right feed intake to maintain growth and health – and since these will be the new members of your future milking herd, you don’t want to skimp on their care.
So, if there was some way to reduce the amount of time you spend on your calves and still get the same or better results, then well, wouldn’t you get just a little bit excited? What if I told you that there are farmers out there who do this, and do it successfully?
Meet Karina Glass.
Karina has been farming at Invergordon in Northern Victoria for the last three years with husband Brendan Glass – having only recently made their leap into farm ownership. Karina was originally an events coordinator with little to no dairy farming experience, making her new life a steep learning curve. Hearing that she had an unthinkably short five week weaning period, I jumped at the opportunity to interview her here:
‘I completely knew nothing about the farm at all. It just made sense for me not to go back to work after we had Jess [Karina’s first child]… with high day care prices, travel, time away from her. [Originally] I was never ever going to work on the farm, just be a stay at home mother… but I got bored and it made no sense to me not to learn and go help – it was our income.’
So what made her start taking the calves on?
‘It’s Brendan’s worst area… he likes to grow grass!’ Karina laughs. ‘I just started to feed them… and had no idea what I was doing. I started asking around, reading up on it – all the things you do to learn about it.’
Determined to learn as much as she could about farming and calf rearing, Karina’s first stop was a Women in Dairy Australia (WIDA) Conference, then a scholarship diploma in agriculture, before attending the Australian Dairy Conference last February in Geelong. This was where she first heard about fortified milk feeding* from Dr Gemma Chuck and got her hands on the Dairy Australia Rearing Healthy Calves manual.
I asked Karina what made Gemma’s presentation ‘click’ for her – what made her want to change
‘The way she made it seem easier. Easier, more labour efficient, less loss of calves…’
She wasn’t worried about the extra cost of milk replacer at all. ‘What possibly could have been extra costs in buying milk powder and things like that, I think you’ve saved in labour and I also think… well, last year in December I was pulling 20 litres out of the vat to rear the calves, but the year before at that stage I was still pulling 300 litres out of the vat. So… all that milk is going now and we’re being paid for it. And all my calves are weaned by that stage.’
I was impressed. It’s not always easy to take something which you’ve only heard or read about and turn it into a reality on farm. I asked Karina how she began putting a new system into place.
‘I just followed along with the steps in Gemma’s powerpoint presentation. There were lots of details and photos about what the case study farm did. There were a lot of things I was already doing, but this time I was 100% sure to do those things properly. There was no doing things 50% – if I was doing it, I wanted to make sure that I was doing it really well.’
Karina went onto explain her reasoning behind her management choices. She emphasized that she made her decisions in partnership with Stu, her farm worker, and that they both had a hand in coming up with an instruction sheet for the calves.
‘We wrote it together. We sat down and referred back [to the presentation] and just changed a few things that would work better on our farm to make it as easy as possible for us. I wanted his help to do it – some things just don’t work on all farms.’
Were there any barriers that Karina had to overcome in order to implement the system on her farm?
‘We didn’t have the money nor the labour to do everything – that was unrealistic for us. So we had to get gates [dividers] instead of using mesh for example – which is better than what we had but not what she suggested.’ (Gemma recommends using a divider that prevents nose-to-nose contact between groups of calves.) ‘We looked at getting pine bark but we couldn’t get our hands on it at a reasonable price, so we had to look into rice hulls instead. They also say you should take the calves in straightaway, but it wasn’t realistic for us just labour-wise because I’ve got kids, so we get our calves in once a day.’
After listening to Gemma’s presentation and being determined to try something new, Karina made a lot of changes on farm in time for the following season. These included:
- Implementing a colostrum program, where she collected calves as early as she could and made sure they had two feeds of the right amount of colostrum early in life
- Having a look at hygiene and her calf-rearing infrastructure, including bedding materials
- Following the fortified milk program, where she mixes calf milk replacer into whole milk and feeds it in 2 litre lots to the calves
- Vaccinating cows against disease, so that their colostrum would have the right antibodies for calf immune systems
- Getting onto sick calves and treating them as early as possible
- Tightening up her communication and recording systems
So how did these changes work? Was it worth the time and effort? Karina had a difficult base to start from, inheriting old bugs from a new farm and buying in other herds’ cows.
‘[In the first year] we were losing a bloody lot of calves. I wouldn’t be able to tell you percentages, but it was a lot of calves. It just seems like every other day when we went out, there would be a sick calf or a dead calf. But I reared 95 heifer calves and 10 bull calves last [spring] calving, and I lost 10 calves in total. So, about 10%. I’m hoping to make it better this calving now it’s my second time on this process.’
Karina still has some way to go, but feels like she has more control over her system and a plan for improvement. ‘We had problems with calf diphtheria, but now that we know what to look for and now that we know how to treat it, I should be able to lower that 10% again.’ This autumn calving season she’s also making a few tweaks to the system.
‘As much as we tried to make everything better, colostrum is probably the part that we were a bit slack on. I didn’t really have anything to put the colostrum in, I didn’t have any satisfactory way to store the colostrum… I wasn’t really happy but didn’t know how to go about fixing it. I didn’t have a decent sized fridge or freezer in the dairy, I tried to store them in milk bottles but it was hard to defrost it, I had no way of testing the colostrum… so they were getting the right amount but if it was the best quality I didn’t know.’
To improve the situation, Karina has invested in a brix refractometer (<$40) as well as some Perfect Udder bags for storing and delivering colostrum. ‘I think they’re $2.50/bag – or the more you get it might be cheaper, but I figured, to ensure they’re getting their start in life and considering the effects of sickness and disease… and when you look at export heifers at $1400 – $1600 each, $2 is not a lot of money to make sure they’re okay.’
So as we can see, the Glass family have started their journey towards accomplishing their farming goals, including buying the rest of their property and paying down debt. Karina’s farming philosophy of ‘doing what we do now but better’ seems to be working very well for her. Best of luck to them for the future.
Do you have any questions or comments for Karina? Leave them in the comments box below.
The great calf rearing experiment: Karina’s calving period started on the 12th of March. We’ll pick a group of five calves born in the first week, and then track their progress through pictures and video recordings. This is by no means a controlled scientific trial, but you’ll be able to look at her calves with your own eyes and see if you’d be happy to wean them at the same time she does.
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