Wednesday, 23 February 2011 13:15

Hygiene underpins calf rearing program

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After moving home to the family farm, following time spent living and working in the Caribbean, Annabel Mangal began rearing and selling calves to local hobby farmers in the Adelaide Hills.

The business was initially developed as a means to work on-farm at Nairne, SA, and not have to put her then one year old daughter, Alex, into full time day care. However, it soon grew into an extensive and diverse intensive farming operation.

A proponent of “you have to diversify to stay alive,” Mangal’s business – trading as Southern Trades Management (STM) – now encompasses contract calf rearing, cattle and sheep breeding, a wholesale meat business and a developing overseas venture.

In 2003, Mangal was approached by Dairy Beef Alliance (DBA) to contract rear calves.

As a Regional Manager, she has sourced from over 30 dairies throughout the major dairy regions in South Australia and rears between 500 and 1000 Wagyu-cross calves a year.

Calves are reared from three days to around 200kg at six months, before they are sent to Victorian feedlots and subsequent slaughter for export internationally.

In addition, STM – in conjunction with DBA – works with dairies from the Barossa to Victor Harbor and the Adelaide Hills to Meningie, inseminating low-producing cows and heifers with DBA Wagyu by artificial insemination. This generates a value-added calf and an extra source of revenue for dairy farmers.

“The calves are run on their mothers and enter the DBA feedlots at 10 months, where they pay a premium of 30% above the eastern young cattle index.”

As a result of working closely with dairy operations in South Australia, STM buys and rears around 300 Murray Grey and Angus-cross calves a year for sale to hobby farmers.

Mangal has also developed a paddock-to-plate style wholesale meat business – selling farm-direct Wagyu/ Murray Grey cross beef to local butchers, hotels, restaurants and private consumers,

“This part of the business involves a dairy putting a Wagyu bull over Friesian heifers and producing around 70 calves,” she says. “I pick these up at 3 days old and slaughter at 10 months locally.”

To date, STM has raised more than 2000 Holstein Friesian bull calves for sale, 1000 beef-dairy cross calves sold locally, 10,000 Wagyu-Holstein calves under contract and 300 replacement dairy heifers.

The 360ha property has the capacity to rear 3000 calves a year – with room for expansion. At any given time, it houses 200 calves under two-weeks-old in separate pens (5 per pen), 200 2-8 week-old calves in weaner pens in groups of 10-15, 160 in weaner pens holding up to 80 8-12-week-old calves per pen and 300 in backgrounding lots for calves 90kg (3 months) to 250kg.

Having learnt the challenging science and art of calf rearing through “trial and error”, training and support from DBA and advice from other calf rearers – along with a good deal of hard work and perseverance – Mangal believes one of the major secrets to success is a good understanding and practice of hygiene and disease control,

“Hygiene is the most important aspect of calf rearing. It’s really a case of divide and conquer as calves adjust to people, place and feed changes.

“The first ten days are spent in small yards to acclimatise them to their new environment, get used to being without their mums, settle their digestive balance and, of course, prevent any diseases spreading among the different herds.”

Calves are fed on milk powder, probiotics and electrolytes with bentonite in grain and kaelin in milk powder to bind and help with fluid retention.

Before they leave the property, calves are also vaccinated, de-horned, castrated, wormed, treated against flies and pink eye.

Much of the operation’s work has been done solely by Mangal with seasonal workers brought in for busy times, particularly autumn and spring. However, in 2008 an injury to her neck and lower back forced her to scale back some of the more physically demanding jobs.

“At the moment I have three part-time workers and a school-based trainee two days a week.

“We have adapted the operation to reduce the physical workload and streamline the procedures; we bought better tractors and introduced better systems for cleaning the pens and so on.”

Despite the adoption of some new practices, Mangal does not believe that a machine can ever do as good a job as a person on the ground. Therefore, she will never opt for a fully automatic system.

“Calf rearing really requires a person to be able to look at the calf and assess its behaviour. Is it coming up to feed or hanging back? Is it moving around actively or keeping to itself? These are things a machine can never do and make a huge difference to success or otherwise of calf rearing.”

In South Australia, there are relatively few calf rearers that are not attached to dairies.

“It is hard work – you need to be willing to go the extra mile, which may mean being prepared to get up at 2am to give electrolytes if a calf needs it.

“You also need a good understanding of animal husbandry, have skills in animal health and a sound knowledge of the overarching themes of the industry, market and trends.

“Having good friends in the calf rearing industry is very important; you can share ideas, knowledge and help each other,” she says.

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