It was light and airy thanks to good ventilation, which is essential to avoid pneumonia. That can be a killer disease, although more often than not it leaves calves ill-thriven for the rest of their lives.
A computer rationed freshly-made milk to the calves in small quantities. As each calf approached to suckle the rubber teat protruding from the machine that dispensed the warm milk, a transponder fixed to a light-weight collar round its neck, transmitted its individual identity to the computer.
That computer was programmed to gradually increase the calf's daily allowance of milk for the first 10 days, then feed it the same amount every day for the next 40 days, before reducing it daily for the final 10 days prior to weaning.
The machine mixes measured amounts of milk powder with warm water and feeds the calf every six hours. So if the daily ration is programmed to be six litres of milk, it will make 1.5 litres available at each feed. If the calf doesn't drink all its allowance in one feed, then it is carried forward and added to the next feed – but the computer alerts the farmer so that he can check it isn't turning poorly.
I couldn't help but be envious when I thought back to the rearing systems I employed when I started farming.
Back in those days, buying surplus, beef-cross calves from dairy farms and then rearing them on artificial milk was an economical way of building up cattle numbers on the farm. With hindsight it wasn't such a good idea.
The problem with buying young calves from markets was that you introduced disease to the farm. One of the biggest killers of calves is diarrhoea, or scour as we call it.
Thirty-five years ago there wasn't the range of effective drugs and re-hydration therapies that there is today. Scour caused by the likes of salmonella, cryptosporidium, E coli and rotavirus killed more than just the bought-in calves – it also spread to the calves suckling my beef cows and killed them.
Indeed, closing down my herd was the probably best thing I ever did in my entire farming career. That's where I stopped bringing strange cattle on to the farm and bred my own herd replacements, except for an occasional replacement bull. When a cow lost a calf, if I didn't have a home-bred one to foster, I let the cow run barren that year rather than import a calf.
Fatal calf scours became a thing of the past within a few years of introducing that closed-herd policy.
I can tell you from bitter experience that nursing sick calves 24 hours a day is a tiring and soul-destroying task. As with pneumonia, the survivors of a bad bout often became ill-thriven, loss-makers.
My wife Carmen, as with most farm women, was much better at rearing calves than I was – and I put that down to the fact she had nursed babies and reared young children.
When calves first came home from market, we often had to train those that had been in the habit of suckling a cow how to drink milk from a bucket. That involved putting your hands into the milk and then letting some of it dribble from your fingers on to its tongue to encourage it to suckle your fingers.
Once the calf was suckling strongly, you lowered your hand into the bucket of milk so it sucked the liquid through your fingers, before slowly and gently extricating them from its tongue and leaving it drinking. Easier said than done.
Calves would stubbornly resist that simple training programme and invariably flicked the bucket in the air with their head, drenching you with milk. Often as not, I would lose my temper and abandon the wayward pupil, in the hope that hunger was a better teacher. Carmen on the other hand would quietly persevere until she had the calf drinking.
She was also much better at the early diagnosis of calves going "off-colour", and made a far superior and caring nurse than I ever could.
I am not saying my friend will never have to treat sick calves in his modern set-up, but the chances are much less than when we reared calves.