Maori incorporation Parininihi ki Waitotara (PKW) has established two state-of-the-art calf-rearing facilities in Taranaki to reduce its exposure to the vagaries of the livestock market.
As Taranaki's largest corporate dairy farmer and Fonterra's largest Taranaki milk supplier, PKW operates 15 dairy farms comprising 2500 hectares and seven dairy support blocks, including the calf units.
The two units allow PKW to make better use of its own livestock resources and to mitigate the cost of purchasing stock for the dairy herds on its managed farms, PKW general manager of land assets Ranald Gordon says.
This season 1800 calves will be raised in the two units and next season's addition of a nursery to one unit will increase the capacity of PKW's calf-rearing operation by 50 per cent.
Irene and Derek Cruikshank are the managers of the incorporation's newest 24ha unit at Matapu in South Taranaki. They sold their Skeet Rd dairy farm in 2003 and have been assisting staff on the PKW farms ever since.
The unit can accommodate 300 calves at a time and its state-of- the-art technology will mean the incorporation can grow top- quality milking stock.
It features two purpose-built sheds with six pens capable of holding 25 calves each, giving the animals two square metres of space apiece.
The sheds are airy and ventilated and there is no odour. The woodchip bedding laid on a metal base in the pens is replaced for new intakes of calves.
Meal is stored in a 14-tonne silo and the calves are drenched, vaccinated and weighed in a purpose-built yard.
An automated feed system in the sheds calculates the feeding times for the calves the day they arrive in the unit and monitors each one electronically.
Their diet consists of powdered milk mixed in the automated feeder and dispensed twice daily to each calf. Each calf initially receives 1.8 litres of milk a day, increasing to 2.4 litres as it grows. The calf itself activates the feeder which automatically mixes the correct measure of milk powder with warm water. Meal and straw is always available in the calf pens.
The feeder withholds food when calves seek more than their allocation. "They'll try their luck for an extra feed. But when it comes to the crunch, they know when they're due," said PKW drystock operations manager Andrew Gibson.
Previously RD1's lower North Island manager, Gibson took up a new role as PKW drystock operations manager in June this year. He's responsible for the incorporation's two calf-rearing units and its five drystock blocks in Tirimoana, near Eltham, Bell Block and Tikorangi in North Taranaki, and Meremere and Waverley in South Taranaki.
"If we grow the calves properly in their first year then they will perform in our herds," he said.
Staff are alerted when any animal misses a feed. "If it misses a meal, it never makes up for it," Irene Cruikshank said.
"This is where it all starts. It's the future, right here. If calf- rearing is poorly done, milk production three years on will be poor. Rearing calves badly costs more than doing it properly."
She said the new facility was a credit to the incorporation. "I'm proud to say I work for PKW.
"We love the calves. It's unbelievable to be working to do something that you love."
She said she hoped all calves arriving at the unit had received colostrum within 12 hours of birth.
Derek Cruikshank said in his 40-year farming career he always tried to follow the philosophy of: "If you think it, do it."
He'd found not following his instincts usually led to regret. "Trust your instincts," he said.
Monthly weighing using Livestock Improvement Corporation's Minda system, which sets liveweight targets for young stock, allows the Cruikshanks to keep track of the calves' growth so they can introduce supplementary feed if necessary.
Vaccinating and debudding the calves is carried out with the vets at Taranaki Veterinary Centre's Manaia clinic.
The nursery to be added next season will double the unit's capacity for one season to 1800 calves. It will allow new arrivals to be hand-fed while they learn to use the automated feeders. "The self-feeders take a bit of getting used to, so this starter programme will help them adapt," Gibson said.
When the unit opened in July, the first intake consisted of 300 friesian bull calves raised for Silver Fern Farms.
Heifer calves from the incorporation's own farms began arriving at the unit in mid- August.
After about seven weeks in the pens, calves are moved to the farm paddocks where they continue to receive meal and milk until they're weaned at 100 kilograms.
When they reach that target weight, they're grazed on one of the incorporation's five grazing blocks until they return to PKW's managed farms as 2-year- olds.
In the pens now is the third run of calves this season. They're the incorporation's own beef calves, which will be grazed on its drystock properties after they're weaned.
"Raising beef calves means we're using the facility and filling it for most of the year," Gibson said.
Autumn-born dairy calves will also be reared each season.
The two units would rear as many calves as PKW required, as well as on contract to make full use of the facility. "We'll fill it with beef calves at times, just so there's no down time."
Next spring, 300 wagyu calves will be reared at Matapu for Hastings-based First Light Wagyu, which exports its grass- fed beef around the world.
The second unit on an 83ha Skeet Rd farm near Auroa is managed by Kathryn Wapp. There, a 360-square-metre shed has 14 pens that can each hold 15 calves.
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