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Youngstock Management


Mole Valley Farmers Calf Conference 2017

“Invest in early growth for long term gains!”

Two calf rearing experts from the US and Spain flew over to the UK in June to share their thoughts on youngstock management at Mole Valley Farmers’ first Calf Conference.

Dr Àlex Bach from The Department of Ruminant Production of IRTA in Spain and US Dairy Consultant, Dr Robert Corbett spoke to farmers at the Westpoint Arena in Exeter and The Fenwick Hotel in Kilmarnock.

Around 250 producers attended the events, which focused on calf feeding strategies and the importance of investing in early heifer growth. Joining the speaker line-up were Jan Druyts and Linda van Deurzen-Duineveld from event sponsors, Nukamel, who discussed the optimum nutritional composition of calf milk replacers for optimum growth. Mole Valley Farmer’s Calf Specialist Chris Lavis also spoke about how the Mole Valley Farmer’s team can help assess individual farm calf rearing set-ups and offer advice.

All speakers emphasised the huge benefits of feeding higher levels of milk to young heifers. This included lower overall rearing costs, improved efficiencies and better first lactation yields.

Both Àlex and Robert highlighted the need for farmers to shift their attention away from feed cost per head pre-weaning and instead focus on return on investment.

Àlex said the case for investing in the milk feeding stage was clear: “Early in life you get 60% feed efficiency, so for every 1kg of feed or milk powder consumed, you get 600g of gain. When they’re 657-700 days old, feed efficiency is 7% so, now for every kilo you only get 70g of gain,” he said.

That explained why feeding higher levels of milk actually resulted in lower total heifer rearing costs in a study which looked at calving animals at 22 months of age, weighing 650kg.

The research showed feeding calves eight litres of milk a day in the first two months of age and achieving gains of 1kg/day led to total heifer feeding costs to 22 months of €1,809 (£1,583). This compared to €1,838 (£1,608) when calves achieved 0.5kg/day when fed four litres a day. The optimum was identified as feeding six litres a day, which achieved liveweight gains of 0.8kg/day and cost €1,796 (£1,571).

Àlex said: “I don’t care if you have to put in a lot at the beginning, she’s still cheaper at the end.”

He also highlighted the significant positive impact faster growth rates had on future milk production. “For every 100g of additional daily gain in the first two months of life, you get 226kg of milk in the first lactation. So you get faster growth, she’s cheaper and produces more milk - it’s a free ride,” he said.

Robert also believed farmers could make significant gains by placing more attention on early calf nutrition. “With genetic selection you can get 68-114kg more milk per lactation. But you can increase up to eight times more versus genetic selection just through nutrition in the first few months of age,” he explained.

With that in mind, he emphasised the importance of providing calves with high levels of milk replacer early on. He added: “We use the term accelerated, but there’s nothing accelerated about it. We’re changing nutrition so the calf reaches its genetic potential. It’s a matter of giving them the nutrition they need.”

At best, calves fed on a ‘traditional’ system of a 20% protein/20% fat milk replacer (CMR) fed at 125g/litre across two litres, twice daily, would achieve daily weight gains of 225g. This was way off the target 800g/day weight gains needed to achieve an age at first calving of 24 months.

Dr Robert Corbett suggested the following targets:

• Feed 15% of body weight in CMR during the first week of life (three litres, twice per day for average Holstein calf)

• Increase to about 20% of body weight at eight days of age (four litres, twice a day)

• Increase milk solids to at least 15% starting at the first feed and maintain until weaning.

• Aim for CMR protein of 24-28% and fat of 15-20%.

• Mixing rate of 150-160g/litre is best on average farm.

Feeding chopped straw increases starter pellet intakes

Offering calves chopped straw alongside starter pellets and avoiding feeding long straw in racks pre-weaning is the best way to maximise concentrate intakes and growth, according to Àlex.

He highlighted a trial where providing 80-100g of straw chopped to 2.5cm, along with pellets, increased starter pellet intakes by 30% from 860g to 1,140g per head, compared to feeding pellets alone. As a result, the calves grew better.

“That’s a very nice, very cheap and very effective thing to do. You feed pellets to calves and in a separate bucket you feed chopped straw or chopped poor quality hay to 2.5cm. They will not eat a lot of it, but your concentrate intakes will increase greatly and your gain will increase dramatically,” Àlex explained.

Any chopped grass forage of over 65% NDF, that was not a legume, could work to the same effect. This could include barley straw, oat straw or poor quality ryegrass hay. Àlex said the improved performance seen in the trial was due in part to increased rumen pH due to removal of acid from the rumen, which allowed the animal to grow more. The “toothpick effect” of the chopped straw also cleaned the rumen papillae, which thinned the keratin layer and increased the ability of rumen papillae to absorb nutrients.

He stressed that providing long straw was a “disaster” as the rumen of the young calf was not able to digest this type of forage and it did not provide the toothpick effect. Consequently, he strongly advised against providing racks of straw or any other forage to calves.

Dry cow feeding impacts calf performance

Paying close attention to nutrition in the far off dry period and not just turning cows out to grass and forgetting them is vital to ensure a good transition and good performance from the unborn calf.

Robert explained that the demand for nutrients by the unborn calf was huge, with 46% of glucose in the mother’s blood stream crossing the placenta to the fetus and 72% of amino acids. Any time the mother was short of nutrients would negatively impact on the fetus.

“Nutrition restrictions in the 125-250 days of pregnancy reduces blood flow to the placenta. Calf muscle development also occurs over a long time. If the nutrient intake of the dam is reduced at 2-8 months of pregnancy, you get permanent irreversible loss of muscle,” he said.

He highlighted a trial which had shown dams that had received good nutrition had heifer offspring that reached puberty at an earlier age and had higher pregnancy rates.

Speaking about far off nutrition, he said the provision of starch and quality forage was vital: “One of the biggest mistakes is not providing enough starch to maintain rumen papillae size. If they’re fed a poor forage ration, papillae size reduces and it takes five weeks to return to normal size,” he said.

This meant if dry cows were moved onto better quality forage three weeks before calving, it would take a further two weeks before they fully recovered, potentially leading to subacute ruminal acidosis (SARA) around calving. Robert advised feeding 1.5kg of grain per head in the far off dry period to ensure cows were provided with enough starch. He also stressed the importance of feeding quality forage, that wasn’t mouldy, although high fibre and low ME was still important.

“The dairyman is always afraid that cows will get too fat. They won’t gain weight. The problem is drying off at the incorrect weight,” Robert stressed.


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