Thursday, November 30, 2023

Feel-good film spurs on newcomers

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Calf rearing’s never looked as much fun as it does on the Rakaia Island Dairies music video posted on YouTube. The feel-good video had close to 7500 views in a little more than a month and the hope is it will soon hit 10,000.
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But there’s a more serious motivation behind the hilarity and fun that are obvious in the four minute 19 second video set to the catchy yet controversial song Blurred Lines by Robin Thicke.

Calf rearing manager Karen Fraser said it’s what helped keep the team of six girls and one boy together through the tough first few weeks rearing about 1200 calves through a central facility on the 5800-cow, family-owned farming business (Dairy Exporter, September, page 26).

None of her staff had touched a calf before, let alone worked in such a large-scale set-up. They’re a United Nations mix of youngsters with a couple of Kiwis thrown in. The United States, Uruguay, Chile and France are all represented in the group with several of them highly qualified university graduates.

Lorena Biret, the videographer behind the video, is a social media manager back in France, working with web design and managing media such as Facebook and Twitter for clients, but she’s also a qualified chiropractor.

That’s come in handy in the evenings too with the work-weary group able to get one on one attention for their aches and pains.

Although American Ainsley Schoff is dubbed with the calf whisperer title in the video credits, Karen too could carry the title. She’s turned the big rearing operation around in just one season with her calf-centric approach. There’s been no sick pen and only one calf death – possibly from bloat as it was a calf already out in the paddock.

Karen and her husband Donald sold their 1500-cow farm, Rawhiti Dairies, at Takapau, Hawke’s Bay in June and are between opportunities, Karen said.

One of Rakaia Island’s owners Dave Turner and operations manager Shaun Miers were looking for someone to take on the calf rearing. They’d heard good things about Karen’s management of the precious young stock and contacted her.

She had a couple of likely staff in mind to get them started and decided to take on the project, moving to the farm and bunking in with the girls for close to two months.

The post peelings/bark bedding for the calves was the first thing to go, replaced by stones to improve hygiene. It’s also a lot more permanent.

Karen said some of the old-school ways mean calves are treated as second class citizens to the cows.

“Some people can have a roughness about them that’s just not good for these fragile animals. They don’t understand how they’re harassing them and what effect that has.”

Instead her approach is one of gentleness and nurturing.

“Because I was living in with the girls I was with them all the time and I got to really impress on them how important it was to treat these babies with care right from the start.

“And because they had no pre-conceived notion of how anything should be done they weren’t tainted by any thoughts and ideas they’d developed before.”

She’s talked to the staff on the dairy units responsible for bringing the calves in too, telling them how she wanted them to handle the newborns. Once they get to the central shed it’s all about getting navels doused in iodine and the first warm colostrum feed on board.

But don’t think the softly, softly approach means slowly, slowly. Karen has tweaked some of the feeding systems and the operation is highly efficient with activities done at pace.

The newborns are flooded with warm, day-one colostrum, Karen said. There’s no standing around thinking well she won’t drink because she’s probably had a feed in the paddock. They’re tube fed straight away in that situation and watched like hawks.

Each girl gets to know their calves even though they’re coming in at up to 80-100 calves a day during the peak period.

“Because they’re taking such an interest in them and we only use the 12 compartment feeders they know all about each calf. They know the slow feeders or if one hasn’t had enough.”

Karen’s a great believer in observation and watching the feeding process.

“You can’t tell just by looking at them afterwards which one has fed and which one hasn’t had enough. Some swell out their bellies and some don’t – you’ve got to actually look.”

They’re fed two litres twice a day until they graduate out of the shed and into the calf paddocks. They also have water, barley straw and pellets offered from day one. Once out in the paddock and settled in they get four litres of milk once a day. They have their own shelters and ad lib roughage and water.

Growing up

The move out of the calf shed happens around day 10-12 but depends on how the young heifer is doing.

“You get a few that go through a bit of a sad period around days four to seven and they’re more likely to get nutritional scours around then but provided they’ve settled back down from that and their navels are looking good and they’re good drinkers we put them outside around that day 10,” Karen said.

Any slower drinking calves or animals the team are concerned about at all will be held back. Milk in the shed comes by tanker from one of the farm dairies and is piped through a hose system into each of the pens.

It’s not a system Karen is keen on just because of the hygiene risk.

While it was cold at the start of calving, and high numbers of calves meant milk wasn’t sitting in the lines for any length of time, it wasn’t such a worry. But as the sun got stronger and calf numbers dropped she moved away from it, running an acid wash and hot rinse through the pipes.

By mid-September calving at Rakaia Island was over and Karen could return home for a couple of weeks. Just four girls remained on the farm moving the last of the calves through the shed and out onto the paddocks.

At the end of the month Karen returned to finish dehorning and vaccinating and then weighing and weaning.

That’s all carried out in Prattley yards set up in the paddock to reduce stress on the calves, allowing them to run straight back out into the paddock when the procedure is over.

The camaraderie and spirit among the team had been fantastic, she said.

And that was in no small way due to the video that took several days to create with clips added over time.

“It was something we laughed about and just had so much fun making, it really helped some of the girls get through those early days when they realised just how hard this job was going to be.”

It must have been fun because they all want to come back from wherever they are in the world next year and do it all again. Karen too is likely to be back to oversee the calf rearing system.

Check out the video at or go to YouTube

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