Chris Webb

From small beginnings

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Farming 2014-07-30

I’ve just come to the end of my first year at Reaseheath and the urge to get my feet wet in a real farming enterprise became too great to resist. Joining forces with Chris Roberts, my dairy farmer friend from Oswestry, and Larry Anscombe, another friend on my course, we’ve rented a building and set up a calf rearing unit in Welsh Frankton.

The shed we’ve converted was formerly split between a loose-housed yard and cubicles, already has electricity available and is plumbed with mains water. It’s well-ventilated, light and airy, so should be excellent for the job, although we’ll have to make sure we bed deeply with straw in winter as it might otherwise be too cold for younger calves.

First calf machine

Our plan is to buy beef-cross calves from local dairy farms between one and two weeks old, rear them on milk-replacer through to weaning, and then sell them on to growers and finishers at around fourteen weeks of age, i.e. around 120 kg weight.

We’ve opted for automated feeding of calves housed in groups of 25–30, each calf being identified by the machine using an EID collar. This allows us to monitor the calves individually and feed them a relatively large volume of milk per day whilst controlling the amount they can drink at any one time to avoid gorging.

First calf drinks

Although the machines are relatively expensive, the calves and the milk powder they will consume over a year are more costly still, so we feel the investment in a high-quality rearing system is worthwhile. Written down over five years, the machine costs roughly £8 per calf reared — an amount which can easily be recouped in improved growth performance and more efficient inputs.

I’m really excited about this partnership and new venture. Our first batch of 31 calves has already moved in and it’s great having calves of our own to look after. They’re doing well, took to the machine with instant enthusiasm, and already seem to delivering an impressive liveweight gain. I think a weigh crush to better monitor this might well be our next investment.`

First calves in unit

Assuming this pilot batch continue to do well and we’re able to generate a decent profit when we sell them, we aim to step up to two groups of 25–30 on milk in a couple of months. We also need to start work converting the other half of the shed so we can install an additional two feed stations there. Perhaps this is the start of a more serious farming business.