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Rural Insight: Calf rearing comes with caveats

Tags: Rural Rural Insight

With the beef schedule sitting at near record highs and good prospects ahead for that continuing amid tight global beef supplies, rearing calves for the store market may be an option for small block holders over late winter-early spring.


But as appealing as rearing a few calves can seem, experienced animal health and farming experts caution it pays to do some homework before embarking on what can be the riskiest end of the livestock supply chain.

Dr Bas Schouten has spent the past 40 years advising on how to rear better calves. He admits he can be frustrated by what he sees unfolding on small rural blocks annually over late winter.

“It is easy to think that rearing a few calves on your small block will be a nice interest for you and your children to be involved in. But it comes with some big demands upon your time and your wallet, well before you get to see a return on those calves, and it may be a return that is not what you were hoping for,” says Dr Schouten.

But for anyone seeking a dedicated, large scale operation, opportunities also exist in the market.

Bayleys Waikato rural agent Scott Macdonald has an operation on the market capable of rearing 4,000-5,000 head a year, located close to Hamilton. With 37ha of land and full-scale rearing sheds, it offers an opportunity for anyone who may have cut their teeth on smaller scale rearing operations.Bayleys Waikato rural agent Scott Macdonald has an operation on the market capable of rearing 4,000-5,000 head a year, located close to Hamilton. With 37ha of land and full-scale rearing sheds, it offers an opportunity for anyone who may have cut their teeth on smaller scale rearing operations.

“No doubt, calf rearing can be a riskier business and experience is important, but the returns are there to match that risk if you want to commit.”

The business comes with a full outline of procedures and policies for successful rearing, and a guide to buying quality calves for autumn or spring rearing. The operators of this business have found a market for contracted supply of quality weaned bull calves sought by larger beef operators and finishers. The business includes its own hydroponic feed growing facility, taking barley seed to feed over eight days.

“They have also found a niche in the past on-selling calves they have started rearing to small block owners who are seeking calves from a healthy source.”

Sourcing healthy calves was often the biggest challenge for lifestyle and small block owners.

“Sourcing healthy calves is often the biggest challenge for lifestyle and small block owners.”

Dr Schouten said trust was important knowing that the seller was not just passing on their problem calves.

“Another common mistake is to go the local sale and buy the ‘cheap’ calves on offer, only to find they are sick and either die or just do not do well.”

Once those calves are home, the business remains one loaded with a level of risk, dependent upon keeping disease at bay, and hoping the store beef schedule does not turn against you when it comes weaning time.

New Zealand also now has a very robust Animal Welfare Code of Practice, and rearers are advised to keep in mind that this applies as much to them as it does to large scale commercial farmers or rearers.

“The Animal Welfare Code of Practice applies as much to rearers as it does to large scale commercial farmers.”

Morrinsville veterinarian Richard Mason says the first step in securing quality calves to rear involves knowing you can trust the person selling them to you, and building on that relationship over several seasons.

He also advises spending some time with a calf rearer before embarking on it to see if it is an option.

“And it is a good idea to visit your local vet and get some good advice on hygiene and disease risk. Also make sure you have all your facilities and sheds ready to go before you start, rather than trying to adapt as your numbers grow is also important if you are to avoid disease outbreaks.”

“When it comes to rearing, it’s a business that can turn on a dime if you get disease running through the operation.”

Common calf diseases include cryptosporidium, roto-virus, and leptospirosis. Typically crypto’ and roto-virus will cause wasting and diarrhea. Cryptosporidium in particular can be a hard disease to eliminate and sometimes persists to the following season in rearing facilities.

Where possible calf rearers are advised to source calves from herd vaccinated against roto-virus and bovine viral diarrhea (BVD), and ensure they had good colostrum intake.

BVD could be contracted in the womb from an infected mother, and resulted in calves being weaker at birth.

Dr Schouten says for small block owners committed to doing a good job, calf rearing can be hard but rewarding work. “If you can have a relationship with a local farmer who is prepared to offer advice that can make a big difference between succeeding or not.”

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