Calf shed inspired by chook

By Jeanette Severs

“I looked at my neighbour’s farm and thought, I can do that,” Rohan Bingley said.

‘That’ was replicating the caravans used to house chooks on the neighbouring free-range egg farm. Mr Bingley was looking for a solution to raise his dairy calves.

“But I realised the individual coops wouldn’t work for calves. What I wanted was a mobile shed with pens,” he said.

“So I sat down and designed exactly what I wanted for my calves.”

Five to seven-month-old calves.

It wasn’t the first independent step he has taken on the dairy farm in the past couple of years.

About two years ago, Mr Bingley, an electrician with a thriving Blonde d’Aquitaine bull stud and commercial beef herd at Goon Nure, near Bairnsdale, decided he wanted to be a dairy farmer.

He wanted to set up a single operator system and visited a number of dairy farms, talking to farmers about what did or did not work on their properties. He took on board a lot of advice and sourced two second-hand herringbone outfits, to cut up to build the new dairy.

20-swing-over herringbone, with automatic cup removers and grain feeders, will milk 120 to 130 cows in its second year. It has been built with the potential to expand as and if the herd grows — for instance, Mr Bingley knows that an additional labour unit or a sharefarmer arrangement would require a bigger milking herd.

Last year, he designed and constructed the dairy, clay feed pad, laneways and artificial insemination yard, and reconfigured the paddock layout and irrigation and water outlets on the 130 ha farm. His expertise as an electrician came in handy, sorting out his submersible bore pumps and irrigators. It was his interaction as an electrician, rewiring other farmers’ dairies, that piqued his interest in the industry.

“As an electrician, I’ve been involved in putting other dairies together,” he said.

“What I’ve noticed, is in the dairy industry, there’s scope to grow. It’s a reliable industry in the main. As I get older and want to retire, if any of the family want to be involved there’s opportunities for them.”

He gathered a predominantly Friesian herd in 2016. All were joined with AI to Friesian sires and Friesian bulls used for mop-up. Mr Bingley’s launch as a dairy farmer started on February 1 this year, when the first of his herd began calving.

But the problem of what to do with the calves was bugging him leading into Christmas.

“Everybody said calf diseases were the biggest problem,” Mr Bingley said.

“Another farmer said to me, if he could pick up the shed and move it … That resonated with me and one day I was sitting, looking out at my neighbours’, with their movable pens and caravans for their free-range chooks; and I thought, ‘I can do that’.

“But I didn’t want individual pens for the calves, I wanted a mobile calf shed I could move on to a green site every year.”

So, again, he put his thinking hat on and designed and built a five-bay shed, moved like a sled and connected to the bore water system in each paddock. Each pen has its own hose connected to the shed irrigation system, enabling easy filling of the water troughs. The washdown comes from the same bore system, which has an outlet in each paddock.

The irrigation system inside the calf shed.

Each pen in the open-fronted shed is 3.6 m x 3m, with a solid corrugated iron back wall and high ventilation gap below the roofline. There are hip-height solid corrugated iron partitions between each pen and the 12-teat feeders hang off each gate. Sawdust flooring is sourced from a local hardwood mill.

The skids on the shed are galvanised steel, 100 mm x 50 mm x 3 mm, with a towing capacity that means a four-wheel drive can move it into another paddock. The concrete blocks are moved separately.

From day one, the calves receive milk brought across from the vat in the morning and ad hoc water and pellets. Each pen within the shed is designed to house eight calves.

At two weeks old, each pen is extended using 3 m gates and the number of resident calves doubles; two 12-teat feeders are used in each extended pen. By now, the calves are also receiving hay, along with milk, pellets and water.

Rohan Bingley extending a pen.

“We kept the shed low profile and, for security against the wind, we attached it with wire guide-ropes and turn-buckles to concrete ex-pylons from a bridge,” Mr Bingley said.

The skid and concrete weight.

“Each group of 16 calves stays in the extended pens for 12 to 14 weeks, until they’re weaned off milk.”

They are then moved into the paddock the calf shed is located in; and have access to water and hay, as well as pasture.

Mr Bingley has learned a lot and the initial change for next calving season will be to implement ad hoc hay from day one. Pen one will now be at the opposite end from this year’s calving season.

Mr Bingley is very happy with the success of his idea.

“Only one calf died and the shed can be moved with a four-wheel drive or tractor,” he said.

“A dairy farmer told me to wash out the milk feeders and turn them upside down to dry in the sun, to keep the birds out of them. One of the easiest ways to attract disease is to encourage birds into the milk feeders, apparently.

“I made sure that regularly during the day, I checked the calves and they’re drinking water and don’t get dehydrated. I could install an automated watering system, but humans are inherently lazy and I probably wouldn’t come and check on them as often if I didn’t have to manually turn the hose on.

“It also means I clean out the troughs regularly, every day.”

Water goes into the calf drinking trough.

Coming into the end of his first year as a dairy farmer, Mr Bingley has taken on board other changes he can make to his system. The success of using sexed semen for his heifers was a lightbulb moment.

“I joined 39 heifers with sexed semen and had a 100 per cent success rate last year,” Mr Bingley said.

“Next year, 47 heifers are coming into the herd and they are out of a group where 48 were AI’d with sexed semen. The remainder of the herd was a 90 per cent joining rate using AI.

“My focus is on looking after the heifers and reproduction is pretty important to us as a seasonal calver.”

That includes already ordering two drop-decks of oaten, vetch and lucerne hay, specifically to be fed to the cows during calving in 2018.

“Next year, we’ll use beef bulls to mop up, because there’s money to be made out of the crossbred calves,” Mr Bingley said.

Currently, bull calves are sold at five days old; that system will be applied against the beef-cross calves as well.