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Orphan calves given helping hand by new mother during ongoing drought

Lara Webster and Helena Game, Wednesday October 9, 2019 - 07:23 EDT
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Cathy Hockings has been a saving grace for these orphan calves. - ABC

Tamworth farmer Cathy Hockings finds plenty of love among drought-affected orphaned calves as she dishes up breakfast.

On the menu is buckets of hand-mixed milk formula for the 20 orphans.

As the drought continues to bite in north-west New South Wales and spring ushers in new life, some farmers are unable to keep the young stock.

Mrs Hockings is their saving grace, with producers offloading some of their future herds for her to raise.

"It's gone from me going to the coast from Tamworth to pick up dairy calves, now it's turned right around and people are pulling in at the gate and giving me calves," she said.

"There are so many calves available at the saleyards, and the feedlots, everywhere. It's got that bad that people have to offload them."

With a lot of care, Mrs Hockings aims to get the calves to 400 kilograms.

She feeds them grain, hay and takes them on the road to fatten them.

Once they reach the right weight, the cattle are sent on to feedlots, or hopefully greener pastures.

"It's a pretty great feeling to get them to that point," she said.

It's the hope that the calves will go on to breed that keeps Mrs Hockings motivated during the drought.

"Hopefully these heifers will be on a riverbank somewhere with a calf following them along," she said.

At first, Mrs Hockings was hesitant to share her story but she wanted people in urban areas to understand more about the depth of the drought, and that farmers were doing what they could to save future breeding stock.

"There's a whole lot of little calves out there, and there are a lot of people doing what I'm doing," she said.

"We're trying to keep going and give these animals a bit of a life."

At the saleyards

Mrs Hockings is not only getting calves from nearby properties but also from feedlots and local saleyards.

Bundarra-based livestock agent Justin Williamson travels to saleyards throughout the New England North West region.

Mr Williamson said he was seeing many early weaned calves at weekly sales.

"The week before last at Armidale there would have been 200 bobby calves there and a good 130 of them would have been bucket calves — still required milk," he said.

"I would say vendors are weaning early to give the cow a bit more of a chance. They won't need as much to keep them alive on their own as they would rearing a calf.

"People may think there's also probably a resale advantage of selling a bobby calf at a good rate and then selling the cow cents per kilo."

He said there were more calves being weaned earlier than the same time last year.

"In our area here we were still getting a few breaks in spring last year … most people were in the situation to carry a calf through to the weaner sales."

Feeding cows and calves

For producers who may be able to keep their cows and calves together, there are much greater dietary needs.

The demand of energy for the cow increases hugely when she is pregnant and once lactating, she needs more than double her normal feed intake.

Heidi Austin, a vet with the North West Local Land Services, said producers needed to factor in those increases to ensure the cow could sustain her calf.

"Know how much energy a cow needs and know what you have on hand and what you can buy," Dr Austin said.

"To lactate, cows need hay but they can't fit enough hay in their rumen to actually do it all on hay, so you do need some other high-energy supplement like a pellet or grain-based ration.

"It's almost like your muesli bar has huge amounts of energy whereas if you're eating a salad you have to eat heaps of it to get the same energy."

Dr Austin said with very little green feed available for cows and calves, vitamin A deficiencies become an issue, so injections might be needed to increase levels.

Early weaning advice

For those who make the decision to wean calves early, there are some important things to consider.

North West Local Land Services livestock officer Sally Balmain said energy requirements for a cow decreased by about 60 per cent when a calf was weaned.

Therefore, during drought early weaning becomes more common, but Ms Balmain said there were a number of things to be considered when doing so, in particular, the type and amount of feed calves needed once weaned.

"Make sure the food that you've got is suitable for the class of animal, so the littler we go the more onto the diet we need to be," Ms Balmain said.

"[The smaller they are] the more protein they need and the more energy-dense food they need.

"Because they're only little, they can't fit much [in], so we need to make sure that they get what they need out of what they fit in."

With feed supply tightening, those early weaning are encouraged to make sure they have enough feed on hand to sustain their young stock.

Ms Balmain said ensuring easily accessible water and feed troughs was also paramount.


© ABC 2019

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