Calf Nutrition and Management Tips for 2019

Calf Nutrition and Management Tips for 2019

Dairy heifer calves should be targeted to calve down at less than 24 months of age. Teagasc estimates that current costs involved in rearing a heifer calf to 24 months would amount to almost €1500, but will cost a further €1500 to calve that same heifer at 30 months. Land usage coupled with labour and capital is a large drain on farm resources, costing an average €450 to carry the heifer for an extra 6 months. Replacement rate increases and the average loss in production equate to approximately €700 (based on a milk price of 30c/l).

However, calving heifers at < 24 months involves good management to achieve optimum growth levels. Heifers within the herd should be targeted to calve at 90% of her mature cow weight. For example, a 600kg mature cow needs to be 540kg live weight at the point of first calving. If this heifer is born at 45 kg live weight, a target growth rate 0.7kg per day must be achieved.

Here are a number of key factors to be considered to aid in achieving such targets:


A new born calf is born with no immunity against disease, with colostrum providing the newborn calf with passive immunity. Colostrum quality is measured by the amount of immunoglobulin G (IgG) it contains. IgG concentration must be greater than 50 g/L. The quality of colostrum is highest when collected immediately after the cow calves, with the immunoglobulin content halved by the second milking. Colostrum quality can be measured using a Brix refractometer/colostrometer. The quality of the colostrum varies due to many factors which include; the dam’s disease history, genetics, pre-calving nutrition, number of lactations, etc. However quantity must also be taken into account, with past research highlighting that 65-70% of calves arriving in veterinary laboratories post-mortem had received an inadequate level of colostrum.

When feeding colostrum, it is imperative the 3 2 1 rule is adhered to. This includes providing the calf with at a minimum of 3 litres (or 5-6% of calf birth weight), within 2 hours of birth, using colostrum from the cows first milking; repeating this practice within 8 hours.


Early calf nutrition

It is advisable to feed whole milk to the calf for a minimum of 10 days. Calves should be offered 10% of their body weight in whole milk daily. For example, a 50kg calf should be offered a minimum of 5 litres, divided into two feeds.

Managing the calf transition to solid feed is very important for rumen development. Once a calf begins to consume water and starter concentrates, bacterial fermentation is initiated in the rumen. It is essential to get rumen development started as early as possible. Clean palatable meal should be available to calves at all times, from three days of age. Gain Startacalf is a palatable 18% protein ration with high levels of mineral, vitamins and yeast to aid calves in achieving target growth rates.

Forage provision is of paramount importance for initiating the process of rumen development, and is often forgotten. According to recent research conducted by AFBI, providing calves with a chopped fibre source pre-weaning increased overall live weight post-weaning, while also increasing total dry matter intake.


Milk Replacer

One of the key advantages of feeding calf milk replacer is the reduction of disease transfer e.g. Johne’s disease and BVD. Other advantages are the consistency of product when mixed correctly. Providing calves with a high quality milk replacer which contains a minimum of 20% crude protein level is desirable. High quality protein in milk replacer should derive from dairy products, such as whey or skim powder, which is more readily available to the calf compared with plant derived protein sources. The level of fibre in the milk replacer should be low, <0.2% with a fat content of 15 to 20%. Milk replacer should be mixed at the rate which gives the calf minimum 12.5% solids similar to good quality whole milk. Milk replacer should be mixed with clean fresh water at a temperature of 40°C.


Calf comfort

Post-parturition, The calf’s environment needs to be clean, dry and well ventilated. Particular attention should be paid to the calving pens and creep areas. Bedding should be regularly added to these areas. You should be able to kneel on the bedding without your knees getting wet. All areas where calves are should be cleaned out and disinfected between batches of calves. Calves should be housed in a draft free environment that provides good ventilation. For calves kept in groups, the unrestricted space allowance available to each calf shall be at least equal to 1.5m2 for each calf with a live weight of less than 150kg