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Dairy heifer replacements key to future success

15th August 2016

For many dairy farmers an effective calf and heifer rearing programme is at the core of the business, but with an outlook of reduced income for many producers, the time to scrutinise costs across the enterprise may be necessary. 

However, it is vital that calf and heifer rearing should not be one of the first areas to take the hit when looking to reduce input costs. 

“When it comes to rearing calves, in order to obtain optimum financial and reproductive efficiency, maximising daily live weight gains while promoting health, is key,” explains Dr Michael Marsden, Trident Feeds technical manager.

“It’s crucial that farmers recognise the importance of calf development, be it rearing heifer replacements or beef cattle, as poor management during the early stages of life will have detrimental impacts, both in the short term and long term,” he adds.

“In relation to the dairy herd, those heifers that don’t grow at the required rate to hit the expected targets at bulling and calving, based on an average calving age of 24 months, will cost the farm business considerably.” 

However, Dr Marsden is confident that with careful planning and attention to detail, many holdings could advance their overall calf and heifer rearing programmes with a positive impact on the bottom line. 

“I’d encourage dairy farmers to keep thinking forwards even in the current economic climate. It’s important to remember that these animals are the future of the dairy herd and therefore require and justify high levels of attention from day one.” 

Nutrition from the start

Producers should be fully utilising the potential of early growth and at the heart of every calf rearing system should be a philosophy of developing rumen and gut activity, as well as health.

“During the early stages of a calf’s life, it’s able to convert feed into a daily live weight gain of 3:1. This is easily the most efficient time in their lives and research is repeatedly showing that this can have a lifetime benefit to the calf when she becomes a dairy cow,” explains Dr Marsden.

“And, while there’s no single system when it comes to calf rearing, it’s vital that no matter what diet, the principles of consistency, cleanliness of feed equipment and housing, ventilation and observation should be followed as tightly as possible,” he adds. 

To minimise health setbacks, Dr Marsden reminds producers that calves are born with no immunity.

“Newly born calves rely solely on the protective effect of antibodies derived from their mother’s colostrum to ward off infections. For this reason, it’s extremely important that they receive adequate measures of good quality colostrum within the first few hours of life.

“In an ideal situation the calf will consume four to six litres of colostrum, naturally or bottled, in the first 24 hours of its life. Either way, it should be assessed for quality using a colostrometer, and quality should be 50mg/ml, with an aspiration towards 100mg/ml.

“Afterwards, producers should feed a dairy heifer specific replacement milk powder with the optimum protein to fat ratio. Feeding replacement heifer calves on cow’s milk, up until weaning, could offer a short term saving but a long term loss in subsequent lifetime milk production,” explains Dr Marsden.

“There are some exciting new products on the market, such as Axcelera C, a milk rich pellet, that can be used to displace some milk replacer to help save on rearing costs and enhance performance.”

He adds that these young calves should also have fresh creep feed available.

“Repeated research has shown that a proportion of digestible fibre, such as that available from sugar beet feed, can stimulate rumen papillae development, encourages intake and therefore growth rates.

“The available creep feed should be very palatable and high in protein. You’re looking for a crude protein content of a minimum of 18%, and where possible, the feed source should be fed alongside clean, dust and mould free, chopped straw,” explains Dr Marsden.

“Clean water should also be made available to calves from the start of their lives to encourage rumen development.”

When to wean

“I’d urge all farmers to only wean healthy calves. This usually starts at around six to seven weeks of age, or later when pushing for higher growth rates. However as a guide, they should be observed to be eating a minimum of 1kg of concentrate per day, over a three to four day period prior to weaning. This can be delayed if extended milk programmes are deployed,” says Dr Marsden.

“If the calves stall at this crucial time, some of the lifetime benefit can be lost, plus they’ll immediately get behind their target calving age and weight,” he adds.

“Once weaned, it’s the nature of the energy content of the dry feed that promotes growth, so feeding digestible fibre, e.g. sugar beet feed as part of the total concentrate is advised, to reduce the risk of digestive issues and maintain growth and development, including that of the rumen.

“With energy values of 12.5 MJ ME/kg DM from mostly slow but, non-starch highly digestible fibre, sugar beet feed is also the perfect accompaniment to starchy cereals,” says Dr Marsden.

He also notes the benefits of feeding British wheat distillers during and after weaning.

“A co-product of the bio refinery process, British wheat distillers is a good digestible protein source that can help achieve 18% crude protein levels, and is also full of digestible fibre.

“What’s more, the yeast residues help with rumen health at times of stress such as weaning.”

Monitoring health

Dr Marsden also advises that farmers should check all calves regularly and act on any signs of illness as soon as possible. “If a calf is showing any signs of ill health it should be checked closely and its temperature monitored. If required, call the vet or treat according to recommendations previously agreed.

“It’s much better to nip a problem in the bud straight away, also reducing the risk of it spreading among the rest of the calves,” he adds.

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