Cutting corners will not improve calf rearing efficiency

Cutting corners with dairy calf rearing will certainly not improve efficiency and will also compromise longer-term farm sustainability goals.
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That was the key message highlighted by NFU Cymru milk board vice chair and dairy farmer Abi Reader, and Volac’s Dr Jessica Cooke (pictured) during a practical calf rearing webinar hosted by the company as part of Great British Calf Week (2nd to 9th February 2022).

The focused seven days of virtual and in person events held earlier this month was designed 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 that 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 out of her 200-cow, all-year-round calving herd, Abi stressed that although many units may not be rearing calves in perfect buildings, there is always room for improvement in following sound, consistent rearing practices – and to do so without skimping.

“I hired a calf rearer recently, who is a former opera singer and she arrived with no previous farming experience. However, I have to say her personal input has already helped us transform the way we now rear our youngstock,” said Abi.

“After just a couple of weeks on the job she came to me and pointed out just how much we were cutting corners sometimes. The first thing she wanted was a whiteboard on which we could detail and share all the important rearing protocols. It’s worked brilliantly and we have all fallen in behind her, so that whenever she has a day off or is away from the farm for any reason, whomsoever is standing in for her 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.”

Abi added that her new recruit also soon asked for some simple weigh scales so that inputs could be measured accurately and consistently. “You may think these are small changes, but it all adds up and makes for a better flow of communication. It also makes life a whole lot easier for everyone on the farm, including the calves,” she said.

Some of the biggest gains have come from improving colostrum feeding protocols, Abi said.

“Always use a refractometer to test the quality of the colostrum you are feeding. That way you know what you are dealing with and can feed accordingly. And when freezing colostrum for use later, always store the best quality – ideally in small, recycled plastic bottle, or at least mark it up as potentially poorer quality if you are really short.”

Even when calf accommodation is not ideal, Abi was adamant on the point of making sure calves are always kept as warm and dry as possible for optimum growth and health.

“If calves are in a damp environment, they can easily inhale all sorts of undesirable pathogens that hang around in water vapour, so keep your pens dry and clean 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. We are quick to reach for our coats when the temperature drops outside, so do the same for your calves in winter.”

Dr Jessica Cooke, R&D Manager with Volac, 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. It is therefore important to feed enough milk during the winter months. Indeed, for a calf less than three weeks old, you need to step up the level of milk solids by 100g per day for every 10°C drop in temperature below 20°C. For example, if the outside temperature is 10°C, 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 highlighted the benefits of generally feeding more milk anyway to the pre-weaned calf early in life; explaining that correct milk feeding levels improve calf growth and health, as well as programming the rapidly growing pre-weaned young dairy animal for better performance.

“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.

“Provided your colostrum management and feeding protocol is sound – and your calves have access to fresh water, roughage and a palatable starter concentrate – we know that feeding a good heifer calf up to 900g (750g minimum) of calf milk replacer daily will allow you to meet optimum rearing targets. The peak milk allowance (6-8 litres per day in maximum 3L feeds) should be reached by two weeks of age. Indeed, these feeding levels are absolutely crucial if you want to calve heifers down with an adequate body size at 24 months,” she said.

“Calving heifers at 24 months of age is undoubtedly associated with increased survivability and lifetime milk yield, so this target should be every dairy farmer’s aspiration. To achieve this goal efficiently, you have to maximise growth throughout the milk feeding period; use a whey protein concentrate-based milk replacer (e.g. based on Imunopro®) to support better calf growth, development and health; and encourage early solid starter feed intake to ensure good, follow on growth rate post weaning.

“We also encourage all calf rearers to monitor performance too – and if you are always first breeding your heifers at 55-60% of their mature body weight, at 13-14 months of age, you are well on the right track towards a more sustainable dairy farming system. You should also question your farm inputs and ask suppliers that they be as sustainable as possible,” she said.

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