High fibre gives calves great start

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The switch from grain-based feed to fibre has resulted in an easier transition to grazing for the young cattle. Photo / File
The switch from grain-based feed to fibre has resulted in an easier transition to grazing for the young cattle. Photo / File

What has traditionally been problematic terrain on which to graze newly weaned calves has proven no challenge for calves raised on a Rerewhakaaitu dairy farm.

June and Shane Birchall have been working their 280ha farm just south of Rotorua for 33 years and have seen many calves struggle to make the transition to grass because of the steep, awkward terrain.

"Of the 280ha, only about 40ha is mowable. The rest is rolling, with steep sidelings," Shane says.

After a change from grain-based to fibre-based feed, the farm's young stock have gone from strength to strength.

"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. They don't appear to be eating a lot to begin with, which can be worrisome and disheartening, but if their faeces appear green they are eating enough.

"If you persevere, 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 their transition to the steep terrain is much easier.

In addition, last season the farm had a record in-calf rate in heifers raised on the Fiber Fresh system, with 83 per cent of the heifers in calf in six weeks and 96 per cent 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 Birchalls are milking 480 cows, with plans to increase the milking platform and increase numbers to 550 next season. They rear around 200 heifer calves each year - selling the surplus 60 in 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 trying the fibre-based programme would be to "stick at it". He says 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."

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