On-Farm Research

October 2008
On-Farm Research is a private research company focusing on grass-roots research and they are the New Zealand experts in calf-rearing research.

The Poukawa research station used to be owned by AgResearch. It was one of the last to be set up in 1989, but AgResearch closed it a few years ago when centralizing research at their major campuses. Now it is owned privately.

Interview with Dr Paul Muir

In 1996 beef was $1.60/kg, it was pretty ugly and meat companies were concerned calves werent going to get reared. They approached us to see if we could do some work to get lower cost systems to rear calves. Our very first trial was in 1996 when we looked at three different commercial recipes to rear calves, and in the fourth part of the trial we did a short-cut. What we learnt is that the people with milk and meal were trying to sell a product. We came up with a cheaper, lower cost way of rearing calves. Because of the enthusiastic response we got from calf rearers who had obviously been a completely neglected part of the industry, we kept going with our trials.

We still get new enquiries all the time; its a very dynamic industry with a big turnover of rearers. The average rearer only sticks at rearing for five years. About 500,000 bull calves are reared each year, and about 1million dairy heifers, although these numbers will fluctuate.

We print a calf rearing newsletter each June and it goes out to 3400 people, about half of whom are rearers.

One of the most important things we have done is take the mystery out of once a day feeding. Very few people were feeding calves once a day before 1996. Now everybody rearing bull calves does it. No-one has gone back to twice a day feeding.

We have run 60 to 70 trials on different aspects of calf rearing over the years. I really think our biggest contribution is being available to the industry, and also taking the bullshit out of rearing calves. We give advice but dont sell anything, so we dont push a product.

We would get 100 phone calls a year on calf rearing. There is no one single problem; everyone has different problems at different times which they need to sort out.

Bev says when people call they tend to need help immediately with a calf problem.

Paul says calf rearers dont like going to vets, and very few vets are really experienced with calf rearing.

Each year Poukawa has had typically 300 calves in trials and Meat and Wool NZ invests in this work.

At the moment they have trial Friesian calves and Wagyu calves which are being raised commercially.

The current direction of research is focusing on: the effects of disease on growth rates; different colostrum levels in calves arriving from different properties; rearing dairy heifers versus bull calves.

The calf season starts in mid to late July and the calves arrive in two batches: the Friesian bulls and heifers earlier and then the Wagyu calves, which are raised on contract, arrive later.

After the trials the calves are sold.

The principles of early rumen development: you want to get calves onto hard feed as soon as possible to reduce the cost of milk inputs. While beef calves on their mothers take five to six months to get to weaning, these Friesian calves at Poukawa are weaned at about five to six weeks (some as little as four, some tail enders seven weeks).

On average people using their eye to determine weaning date would feed their calves for a week longer than people using scales to determine when calves are weanable.

This extra week would cost $14 in milk. When your rearing margin is $80-$100 it can be quite a chunk of your margin.

Calf rearing is a game of quite small margins last year the average rearer only made $30 a calf. There is a big turnover of rearers because they buy retail and sell wholesale. They are squeezed by dairy farmers and by the agents working for bull finishers.

Some calf rearers make money but they need to have a competitive edge: living near dairy farms, getting discounted milk or being on a very large scale to get economies.

The days of someone rearing 200 calves have disappeared unless people just love doing it. Or maybe they are rearing 200 replacement bulls for themselves.

Many of those who used to rear their own replacements have found it is cheaper and easier to buy weaners than to rear calves themselves.

Interview with Dr Beverley Thomson

This year is the third year of rearing orphan lambs. About 150-160 lambs are being reared at the moment. We are developing systems to rear lambs in a low cost way based on our calf rearing systems.

We want to give them a minimum of milk and then put them onto meal. They are lambs that cant be reared on their mothers for many reasons.

As lambing percentages go up there are more and more lambs which are at risk from dying.

On-Farms triplet survival work shows that singles have a 9% mortality from birth to weaning, 11% in twins and 24% in triplets.

Most lambs are reared on a pet lamb system with high cost, high labour use, feeding three to four times a day and large amounts of milk.

A lot of these systems arent practical or economic on a farm basis. We pick up the lambs which are struggling. We start off feeding them three times a day and work our way down. Meal and pellets are available to them from day one.

We are looking to rear lambs in the order of $20-$30 for milk and meal.

There are also welfare issues: we need to be able to say we have rearing systems put in place to rear these lambs which otherwise arent going to make it.

Rearing lambs struggles to be economic some years, but in a year like this, it is probably the year it works.

Funding for these trials comes from AGMARDT, our main sponsor, also some from Meat and Wool.

We have a group of farmers (Poukawa Research Foundation) who meet to ensure our research is focused on relevant issues. These farmers wanted to see unbiased information on the best grasses to grow. They get lots of glossy brochures in the post at seed sowing time but didnt have any independent local data on the relative performance of the grasses.

We are looking at performance and persistence of a wide range of different grasses.

We are also comparing lamb growth on annual and perennial ryegrass pastures.

Meat and Wool is sponsoring this work via Pastoral 21.

The annual grasses are growing more dry matter though not as much as many would have thought but the lambs have better growth rates on the perennials than the annuals.

The lambs are set stocked, and each treatment is replicated three times. There are 12 paddocks, each of 1.5ha.

This year and last year we have also added in a high nitrogen boosted annual to see the effect on lambs in response to veterinarian Trevor Cooks comments about nitrogen poisoning stock.

We are also comparing new perennial ryegrass with perennial ryegrass which has been sown down for a year.