An all encompassing approach which starts before a heifer is even born has helped Stowell Farms reduce their average age at first calving by two months in the last three years. 

Stowell Farms in Pewsey, Wiltshire, is one of Mole Valley Farmers’ Focus Farms. Their heifers currently calve at an average of 24.2 months, with the team aiming for 23. The current figure is higher due to the purchase of 62 in-calf heifers to facilitate herd expansion last year. 

Herd Manager, Chris Gowen believes it’s a no brainer to grow heifers so they are big enough to calve at 24 months or under. “It’s a quicker return on investment so you don’t have to feed them as long,” Chris says.  

Calving at 24 months versus 30 months has also been shown to increase total milk yields by 40% across the first five years of life (first three lactations, Cooke et al, 2013). 

With the 720 cow milking herd averaging 11,700 litres a cow a year, maximising milk production is a driving force. 

Farm Manager, Neil Ridgway calculates that reducing age at first calving from 26 to 24 months, together with the recent move to a robotic milking system, focused on cow comfort, should mean cows last 2.5 lactations longer. This will ultimately lead to a more profitable, sustainable system. 

Heifer growth rates have been optimised by: 

1. Focusing on the dry period 

Neil and Chris believe heifer performance starts with how her dam is managed during the dry period, as this will impact on the quality of the colostrum fed to her calf. 

Chris says: “It’s about calf health, colostrum quality, having the right length of gestation versus the dry cow period and knowing your cows; particularly the older cows that need longer on transition.” 

The team focuses on providing a consistent, low stress environment around calving 

Feed is pushed up regularly, fans are used to reduce heat stress and emphasis is placed on delivering a consistent diet. All cows are vaccinated against rotavirus, coronavirus and E coli (K99), to raise the level of antibodies to these scour pathogens in their colostrum. This in turn helps bolster calf immunity.  

About 5-10% of the herd deemed at risk of extreme negative energy balance are given a Kexxtone boluses (monensin) to prevent ketosis and subsequent disease. This is based on factors such as days dry, body condition and whether they’re carrying twins. With some cows yielding 17,000 litres a year, Neil believes it “makes sense to invest” to ensure a smooth transition, which will ultimately impact on the calf born. 

2. Providing plenty of quality colostrum 

To ensure transfer of immunity from the dam, all calves receive four litres of quality colostrum within four hours of birth, regardless of what time they’re born. 

The team operates a night shift rota, with cameras allowing close monitoring of calving cows. Colostrum must test over 24% using a refractometer to be given as the first feed. 

Chris says: “Colostrum is the biggest part of the heifer story, it’s liquid gold. We’ve seen a big improvement since we started three years ago in terms of scours and mortality.”  

Colostrum is harvested using a mobile milking unit. A calf will be fed its dam’s colostrum if it meets quality standards and the calf is born during the day. Those that calve at night are fed frozen, quality colostrum as their first feed, but will get their second feed from their dam. The aim is to provide three doses of colostrum in 24 hours. Keeping calves in individual ISO Boxes for the first 24 hours allows close management and calves to be tagged (including a BVD Tag and Test), navel dipped and genomically tested. 

The business is also about to invest in an on farm lateral flow testing system which allows calf immunoglobulin levels to be established on day two of life using a pin prick on the nose. Neil found out about the test at Mole Valley Farmers’ Farmer Expo and decided to invest. 

He explains: “If the immunoglobulins are low, we can put more colostrum into them and give them more TLC. After 48 hours, the (absorption) window closes. Raising immunoglobuns levels between hour 38 and 48 could be the difference between 1,000 litres in lactation.” 

After 24 hours, calves move into individual hutches for seven days and receive five litres of calf milk replacer (CMR) at 150g/litre, twice daily, plus Mole Valley Farmers’ Ambition calf compound. 

3. Investing in early growth  

To hit target average growth rates of 800g/day, after week one, heifers are moved to the farm’s rearing unit where they are managed on automatic milk feeders. 

Feeding rates are built up to 900g of CMR per day, and  Mole Valley Farmers’ Ambition calf compound, straw and  fresh water provided. Animals are weighed at each shed change prior to weaning to monitor growth. 

Neil believes this pre-weaning stage is vital. “If you get the first 24 hours wrong, you get the next eight weeks wrong, and if you get the eight weeks wrong, you’re putting the heifer on a poor footing for the rest of her life,” he says. 

The sheds have recently been updated to improve drainage and lighting, as well as ventilation using positive pressure tubing. Stock is managed by Youngstock Manager, Nick Strong 

4. Supplementing at grass  

Heifers are turned out at 6-7 months of age and kept in the same groups to avoid added stress which can negatively impact on growth. They are grazed on quality herbal leys and silage aftermaths and receive 1.5kg of Mole Valley Farmers’ Lifetime Rearer until service to ensure growth rates are maintained. “We haven’t changed the Lifetime Rearer as it’s just such good quality,” Neil comments. Heifers are brought inside one month before service and put on a TMR. Service decisions are then made based on genomic data. Once in-calf they will be grazed on downland leys. They then move to the main unit two months pre-calving and are placed on a high fibre maintenance diet before moving to a bespoke transition diet, 25 days before calving. This is designed by Mole Valley Farmers’ Technical and Sustainability Manager, Dr Matt Witt. After calving, heifers are managed in a low stocked dedicated group. 

Farm Facts – dairy overview 

Find out more about dry cow management at Stowell Farms.