Tesco, a leading milk retailer in the UK, is supplied by over 700 dairy farmers who, as a collective, are known as the Tesco Sustainable Dairy Group (TSDG). There is a clear commitment by Tesco to increase the productivity and enhance the welfare of the dairy calves from which its milk is sourced.
By utilising the facilities in place at Wood Park Farm at the University of Liverpool, Tesco worked with Dr Caroline Argo of the Institute of Ageing & Chronic Disease and Gemma Curtis, a graduate KTP Associate, in a 3-year programme to address the challenge of developing novel rearing strategies to improve the health and welfare of dairy calves, growing and adult cows, while achieving improved productivity and corresponding reductions to milk purchase costs.
During the KTP the Associate compared the performance of Holstein dairy calves reared conventionally with restricted access to milk replacer (MR) to those granted ad libitum access during the pre-weaning period. Calf performance and health was monitored from birth to the time of first breeding and variables that were measured included: growth; body condition; body composition (using CT scanning); udder development; food and milk intake, aspects of nutrient metabolism, and other measures of health status.
The benefits of ad libitum access to MR feeding were immediately clear. Calves reared in line with this new strategy gained approximately 20% of birth weight during the first 2 weeks of life, whilst those reared in the conventional way failed to grow at all during this period.
The results of the KTP programme have been disseminated to the large cohort of dairy farmers who form Tesco's supply chain – the Tesco Sustainable Dairy Group (TSDG) – through a series of workshops and via Tesco's online Producer Network, emphasising that the long-term health benefits for the calves also have a clear long-term cost benefit.
The company expects future cost benefits due to increased productivity of dairy cows combined with positive publicity associated with improving the health and welfare of dairy calves. The KTP has also created the opportunity to share best practise with members of TSDG and to introduce improvements leading to potential changes to financial performance which will be a key driver in delivering change throughout the supply-base.
Participating in the project has allowed the Associate, Gemma Curtis, to concurrently undertake doctoral research, leading to a PhD. The personal development aspect of the KTP allowed her to complete a Diploma in Management, an APMP qualification in Project Management and a Risk Management qualification, which she would not have been able to achieve without the project.
For the academic partner, this research has illustrated that allowing unrestricted access to milk replacer during the early stages of life means calves can grow at a greater rate and therefore be bred earlier than calves allowed restricted volumes of MR.
For Tesco, the results of the partnership offer us the opportunity to: share best practice with our TSDG members; drive improvements through the supply chain and; understand an areas which has previously seen little research and in-depth focus.Graham Wilkinson, Agriculture Manager - Dairy Category, Tesco plc