Calf rearing at the Van Iersel dairy farm: calves for 10 weeks in igloos

Sometimes you have to turn your operation completely on its head for a better result. That was the case at the dairy farm of John and Miriam van Iersel in Nederweert, Limburg. At the same time as the new building for the dairy cattle, the accommodation and feed supply of the calves was tackled rigorously. Illness levels are now minimal.

If you drive past the Van Iersel farm, you'll notice two things straight away: a long row of igloos and a long, open-front shed. In the 100-metre open-fronted shed the young cattle stay from 10 weeks. The calves spend the first 10 weeks in an igloo. The 50 igloos stand in two adjacent rows.

Formerly the calves were accommodated in calving boxes and group pens in a space that wasn't ideal in terms of ventilation. They were fed with full-cream milk from the cows. “It just didn't work’’, said employee Herbert de Leeuw. We had a lot of diarrhoea among the animals and mortality was high. Meanwhile the company grew and took on more and more calves. And then such problems become a major issue.”

No calf drinking machine

The farm now has 300 dairy cows and 300 young cattle. Farms of this size often opt for a drinking machine for the calves to save labour.

De Leeuw is assessing systems for automatic feeding, but is not yet convinced. The Van Iersel company therefore chose individual accommodation in igloos. Not for 1 or 2 weeks, but for the maximum 10 weeks. “More work than group accommodation with a drinking machine”, admits De Leeuw. “But you've got much more control. If a calf does not eat and drink, you see it immediately.” Mortality rates are now well below 10%.

New feeding plan for the calves

We also tackled feeding at the same time as accommodation in igloos. No more full-cream milk, but Sprayfo Excellent. “Do it properly or not at all”, De Leeuw explains their choice. A feeding plan was drawn up under supervision from Erik Heber from Isidorus and rearing specialist Hans Wansink from Sloten BV. The dairy farmer opted to supplying milk for at least 9 weeks.

In addition to milk replacer, the calves get fresh water and hay every day and muesli mix in the combifeeder. 

Minimal illness

De Leeuw is very pleased with the results. “We've now got into the routine and things are going really well. We do not have any problems now with ill calves and no longer need so many antibiotics. The benefit of the igloos is that illness rates are now minimal.” The minimal illness rates are also down to no ‘strange people’ coming in contact with the calves. The bullocks are separated directly after birth and do not go to the igloos. This means neither the cattle dealer or transporter have any contact with the heifers.

Clothes peg per colostrum dose

The Van Iersel farms employees 4 permanent staff. Every morning and evening, Herbert de Leeuw or one of his colleagues uses a milk mixer to make Sprayfo Excellent and deliver it to the igloos. In the morning, including cleaning and laying fresh straw, this takes an hour, and in the evening feeding takes half an hour.

The youngest calves get colostrum for the first six feeds. The employees at Van Iersel have introduced their own communication system to ensure that every calf gets enough colostrum. If a newborn calf is laid in an igloo, six blue clothes pegs are hung on the edge. Every time a calf gets colostrum, a clothes peg is removed. If the pegs are all gone, the calf can get Sprayfo.

More pleasure in your work

Once the calves are about 10 weeks old, they are moved in groups of at least five to straw pens in the young cattle shed. They then stay as a group, even when they are being moved on. This keeps the herds uniform and ‘abnormalities’ and laggards are quickly noticed. De Leeuw is very positive about the rigorous turnaround in the accommodation and feeding of the calves. The system not only results in healthier calves, but also in a more pleasurable working environment.

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