Pāmu has set itself the ambitious goal of rearing all of its calves from its dairy herds for meat production by 2030.
To achieve this, the state-owned farmer is investing in its calf-rearing capacity while following best practice calf care.
One of these investments is its 85 hectare unit at Exeter, north of Taupō, where it held an open day in December, attracting close to 200 people.
This year it will rear 55% of its calves with the aim over the next two to three years to lift that to 75-80%, says Pāmu chief executive Mark Leslie.
“We can see an easy pathway rearing those first 80% of animals … but the challenge will be the last 20%. We acknowledge that.”
Of Pāmu’s 110 farms, 42 are dairy farms, milking 40,000 dairy cows.
Its rearing plan has it increasing its calf overall capacity from rearing 5400 this season to 10,500 in 2026-2027 across all of its farms.
Outside of Exeter, it has converted a woolshed to rear 600 calves at its Weka farm on the West Coast with another shed planned, to rear up to 900 calves.
Exeter farm manager Mason Jones says they reared 3300 spring- and autumn-born calves last year with the aim to lift that to 3500 for this season.
In 2024, they will rear 800 more through their autumn calving sheds and in 2025 will expand the existing rearing shed at Exeter by adding another, smaller shed.
It still leaves capacity questions, with Pāmu needing to create facilities to rear a further 3000 calves. It is still considering its options, Jones says.
The calves are sourced from Pāmu’s 16 spring-calving farms and three autumn-calving farms, arriving at the shed at four days old and remaining there for three weeks in pens filled with woodchips.
The shed can rear around 800 calves at capacity. The calves are fed milk, meal and hay. After three weeks, the first batch of calves go outside and get trained on outdoor feeders and hotwire fencing. The empty pens are left for a couple of days to dry out before the next shipment of calves arrives.
If calves get sick, they are removed and transferred to an adjacent implement shed that is converted into a rearing pen to stop any disease spreading to other calves.
Once the calves reach 100kg, they are transferred to one of Pāmu’s other farms and finished to 200kg before the end of April as either a bull, prime steer, heifer, veal, once-bred heifer, as a replacement for a dairy beef cross breeding cow herd, or sold on the store market.
Jones says the biggest challenges to overcome if Pāmu is to expand are staffing, biosecurity, the risks of intensive rearing in sheds for 15 weeks and planning the logistics of rearing such a large number of calves in terms of co-ordinating it with Pāmu’s dairy farms.
The calves are collected from seven dairy farms in the first six weeks of calving. For the last two weeks, the calves are collected from all 16 spring-calving dairy farms.
“That poses a massive risk in terms of bringing bugs in. With seven it’s manageable but as you get to the end of the season, there’s more bugs, rearers are more fatigued and that’s where issues can kick in.”
They increasingly found health issues from the calves from the final few weeks of picks-ups this season, he says.
As more facilities get built to help with the expanded numbers, Jones says they will try to be more strategic about how they rear the calves to reduce this issue.
It’s an intense system that puts pressure on an already bug-loaded system, he says.
“We are going to have to work through that with our team with a lot of attention to detail, training and pushing through to the end because it’s going to have a massive knock-on effect in rearing those last lot of calves.”
Jones says they are still working on a plan to ensure the tail-end of the calves are reared to the same standard.
They are also working on consistency in terms of care and colostrum management across Pāmu’s farms.
“That sets us up to succeed as well, so making sure all of our dairy farms are on the same journey and singing the same tune as what we need.”
It includes finding answers for how to shift calves in January when the weather turns dry. Currently, it takes Mason and his team 14-15 weeks to rear the calves to 100kg. If that can be reduced to 12 weeks, it would allow them to better manage these tail-end calves.
Jones says their goal is to keep their rearing costs lower than $400 a calf. Pāmu’s biggest costs are milk and labour, totalling $109 and $101 respectively.
Next is general expenses at $81 followed by animal health and calf meal at $57 and $49. Factoring in an undisclosed internal purchase price, the calf returns a margin of around $65 a head.
The goal is to lift that margin to $100, which he believes is achievable due to the economies of scale as the rearing operation scales up.
Fonterra senior veterinary manager Michael Shallcrass says the volatility of the calf-rearing industry is a result of the price rearers purchase the calves for, the price at which they sell them to finishers and the impact of disease when the calves are on the farm.
The price element is down to external factors that are beyond a farmers’ control, he says.
The farm’s management practice will also dictate the impact and the spread of disease.
“That’s going to have a big impact on the profitability of the calf rearing season overall.”
The rearing industry is geared around getting a calf to the state where its rumen is developed to a degree that it is no longer feeding on milk, so that milk can be sent to the processor.
That means farmers have to make compromises. Feeding less milk means the calf will grow more slowly – but the farmer’s costs are reduced.
It is also important for the rearer to know what is happening on the farm the calves are born on. That all has an impact on how successfully that calf will be reared, he says.
“It’s cow preparation. It’s making sure the cows are healthy, they’re at condition, they’re going to calve well and they’re going to have bright calves that will get up and drink quickly.”
Feed consistency is also key. A calf’s immature digestive tract is not capable of digesting a wide variety of feeds apart from milk, and inconsistency around feeding volume, timing and temperature all affect how that milk is digested.
It can also set the calf up for a nutritional scour, which is the gateway to an infectious scour, he says.
“Having consistency in your feed is really important as is understanding the compromises there,” Shallcrass says.
This article first appeared in our sister publication, Dairy Farmer.