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Get the basics right in calf rearing

Successful calf rearing is a piece of cake if you get these basics right. If you get these basics wrong, however, it doesn’t matter what products, milk replacers or compounds you feed, you will never achieve optimum results.

It’s nothing new to say colostrum should be fed as soon as possible after birth – ideally within 6 hours. However, don’t forget that colostrum is a ‘nutrient soup’, and needs to be chilled to prevent bacteria multiplication; don’t feed bacteria, dirt and flies to unprotected newborn calves! Cover the colostrum bucket and, if freezing, make the pack as flat and thin as possible to aid a quick thawing process. Newborn calves require 200g of IgG; good colostrum carries 50g/litre, meaning a four-litre litre feed rate is required. Remember colostrum quality varies, so you may need to feed more. If in doubt, use a colostrometer to judge quality (measure with colostrum at room temperature for accuracy).

Calf feeding equipment, calving pens, calf pens etc must be as clean as you possibly can make them, otherwise calves are exposed to all additional levels bacteria naturally found in the environment.

Calves, like most livestock, thrive on routine and consistency. Aim to make every feed the calf receives the best possible and on time; a consistent, strong nutrient supply will give the calf all the fight it needs against bacteria and viruses trying to invade.

Check the label
Always check the label of any product you are feeding to your calves so you know what the ingredients and nutrient levels are. Ensure you are also feeding to the correct rates specified.

Calves need to nest into their beds; they aren’t yet ruminants, so don’t produce their own body heat like an adult ruminating animal. Lying in damp or wet areas pulls heat from their body, necessitating use of their body reserves of energy to try to stay warm; body energy which ideally should be used for growth. A balance needs to be struck between keeping calves as warm and snug as possible (drafts also remove body heat) and not eliminating all air movement. Calves lie down for around 19 hours per day, so their noses inhale a lot of potential ammonia from their bedding, so ensure it is as clean and deep as possible, and allow some slow air movement through the shed.

As a quick test, sniff the air for ammonia as you enter the calf shed, then again at bedding level. Ammonia inhalation on a long term basis will irritate the airways and pre-dispose the calf to pneumonia. Also, as a rule of thumb, increase milk replacer feed levels by 100g per day for every five degrees below 15ºC, as a calf can’t keep itself warm below this temperature.

The latest research on feeding calves shows maximising nutrition during the milk feeding stages activates a process known as epigenetics. This allows the genetic potential of the calf to be expressed later in life. It can be thought of as a corridor with lots of doors; the doors are future growth and production and, if we don’t feed enough during this stage, we don’t open these doors for the future. If we progress down the corridor without opening the doors during early calf rearing, they never get opened, and future production is compromised. Calves should be fed around 900g/head/day of a good quality, balanced milk replacer. Step the feed rate up, and step wean for the best results.

For further information, please speak to your local NWF Sales Specialist or call 0800 756 2787.

By NWF Youngstock Specialist, Hannah Farrell.

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