Worth checking your calf-rearing basics

Published 26 August 14

Perfecting your calf-rearing has always paid off, through lower mortality and better-developed immune systems. But with recent research also indicating that faster-growing heifer calves can have increased milk production in their first lactation, it’s worth checking if your rearers are following the latest evidence, says Eblex’s Dr Mary Vickers summarising key messages from Cooper and Watson 2013.

Calf milk replacers are the mainstay of the majority of calf rearing enterprises. Both skim and whey based powders can provide good quality feed but check the ingredients and nutrients they contain as these vary.

Dilution rates vary from product to product but are usually in the range 100-125g/l; however, concentrations up to 150g/l can be fed in a well-managed system.  

Feeding amounts should vary according to calf live weight, target growth rate, environmental conditions (for example, feed requirements increase in cold weather, especially if the calves are housed in an open area) and nutritional composition of the product being fed.

Current advice for most situations is to feed 5-6 litres of milk (13-15% of calf birth weight) daily, in at least two feeds, at a concentration of 125g/l (625-750g/day). In unfavourable conditions, such as during the winter, then it is advised to increase the concentration to 150g/l.

Mary Vickers
Where growth rates in excess of 0.7kg/day are targeted then the milk replacer should have a crude protein content higher than 20%. For lower growth rates of 0.45-0.7kg/day then a crude protein concentration of around 20% is usually more cost-effective.  Milk replacers should also have a maximum of 9% ash declared and a minimum of 0.8% calcium.

Calves should be at least double their birth-weight at weaning which, if feeding milk for approximately eight weeks equals a growth rate of 0.7-0.8kg/day, dependant on birth-weight.

Optimising growth rates while being fed milk not only promotes calf health but has also been shown to benefit performance after weaning and into adulthood. However, this should be achieved through a balance of milk and hard feed to promote rumen development. 

Basics check list for calf rearing team

  1. A common mistake during milk replacer preparation is to add milk powder to 1 litre of water and then mix; but to make up the correct concentration, eg 125g/l, then 125g of milk powder needs to be topped up with water to 1 litre of mixed milk and not vice versa – it’s worth checking how your calf rearers are mixing their milk

  2. Clean, fresh water should always be available as well as milk and should be kept separate from milk feeding. Water intake promotes rumen development and dry feed intake

  3. Starter feed should be palatable (eg contain molasses), not dusty and available from one week of age. Calves should also have access to long fibre, preferably straw, in racks to encourage solid feed intake

  4. Avoid heat damage at mixing by making up the milk with warm water. Do not use boiling water initially, followed by cold water to make up the volume as this will denature the protein in the milk. Keep temperature below 50°C

  5. Feed calves at the same times each day, at the same temperature, at the same concentration and with the same product (do not switch between whole milk and milk replacer)

  6. Cleanliness is paramount; equipment should be cleaned between feeds, using detergent for feeders or buckets