There are no shortcuts when it comes to efficient calf rearing, and implementing strict feeding and management protocols are key to maximising growth and achieving target age at first calving.
TEXT DAVID BUTLER
Cutting corners with calf rearing will fail to improve efficiency and will also compromise longer-term farm sustainability goals. That was the key message highlighted by Wales-based producer Abi Reader and Volac’s Jessica Cooke during a practical calf-rearing webinar, hosted by the company as part of Great British Calf Week in February.
The seven-day focus of online and in-person events was held to celebrate progress made by the industry since the launch of the GB Dairy Calf Strategy in 2020. This is an initiative spearheaded by NFU and AHDB, which aims to ensure all dairy-bred calves are reared with care and for a purpose – as part of either the dairy or beef supply chains.
Drawing on her own personal experience of rearing both dairy and beef calves from her 200-cow, all-year-round calving herd, Abi Reader said there was always room for improvement. She stressed that although many units may not be rearing calves in perfect buildings, producers could always implement sound, consistent rearing practices – and to do so without skimping.
“I recently hired a calf rearer – a former opera singer – so she arrived with no previous farming experience. But I have to say her personal input has already helped us transform the way we rear our young stock,” said Ms Reader.
“After just a couple of weeks on the job she pointed out just how much we were cutting corners in some areas. The first thing she wanted was a whiteboard where we could detail and share all the important rearing protocols. “It’s worked brilliantly and we have all fallen in behind her. If she has a day off or is away from the farm whoever is standing in simply follows all the listed protocols – to the letter. As a result, we are now far more consistent in our calf-rearing approach. And calves enjoy consistency.” Ms Reader added that her new recruit also soon asked for some simple weigh scales so inputs could be measured accurately and consistently. “Small changes, but it all adds up, and makes for a better flow of communication.”
She added that some of the biggest gains have come from improving colostrum-feeding protocols. “Always use a refractometer to test colostrum quality, so it can be fed accordingly. And when freezing for later use, always store the best-quality colostrum, ideally in small, recycled plastic bottles, or at least mark it up as potentially poorer quality if supplies are short.”
Even when calf accommodation is not ideal, Ms Reader stressed that calves should be kept warm and dry for optimum growth and health. “If calves are in a damp environment, they can easily inhale pathogens hanging around in the air. So keep pens dry and clean them out regularly using lime, if necessary, to soak up moisture. I’m also keen on calf jackets and heat lamps when the weather is cold.”
Volac’s Jessica Cooke also highlighted essential cold weather management practices, such as feeding calves enough milk. “A cold calf has to divert milk energy away from growth towards keeping warm and possibly even to fight off a disease challenge. So it’s important to feed enough milk during the winter months. For a calf less than three weeks old, the level of milk solids fed needs to be stepped up by 100g per day for every 10°C drop in temperature below 20°C. If the outside temperature is 10°C, for example, feed an extra 100g of milk powder per day. This can be achieved by either increasing the volume fed, or by increasing the mixing rate,” she said.
Dr Cooke also pointed out the benefits of feeding more milk to the pre-weaned calf early in life. Correct milk feeding levels improve calf growth and health, as well as programming the rapidly growing pre-weaned young animal for better performance when it enters the milking herd. “In addition, the efficiency with which the calf turns feed into growth is at its maximum early on – dropping from 50% in the first weeks of life to only 10% at first breeding,” she said.
If colostrum management and feeding protocol is sound – and calves have access to fresh water, forage and a palatable starter concentrate – feeding a heifer calf up to 900g (750g minimum) of calf milk replacer daily will ensure she meets optimum rearing targets. The peak milk allowance (6-8 litres per day in three-litre feeds) should be reached by two weeks of age. “These feeding levels are critical if producers want to calve heifers down with an adequate body size at 24 months old,” she said.
“Calving heifers at 24 months of age is associated with increased survivability and lifetime milk yield. To achieve this goal efficiently, growth has to be maximised throughout the milk-feeding period. Use a whey protein concentrate-based milk replacer to support better calf growth, development and health, and encourage early solid starter feed intake to ensure good follow-on growth rates post weaning,” added Dr Cooke.
Calf rearers should also monitor performance. “Serving heifers at between 55% and 60% of their mature body weight, at between 13 and 14 months old, puts producers on the right track towards a more sustainable dairy management system.”