Calf rearing – what do survivors, doers, managers and leaders do differently?

Management of pre-weaned calves is a key stage in ensuring heifers enter the herd no older than 24 months. Sue Bryan, Promar Consultant, considers how different approaches to management during this crucial period can impact on successful rearing.

The pre-weaned calf has considerable potential to grow quickly and has the highest feed conversion efficiency the animal will see in its life. At the same time it will be developing the organs and tissues essential for efficient milk production. So it makes real business sense to get heifer calves off to the best possible start.

But all too often we see calves failing to grow as efficiently as they can and in all cases, this is down to how these valuable animals are managed from birth. Adopting a new management approach can have a significant payback.

Three key areas which demonstrate the different management approaches are:

Colostrum – All dairy farmers understand the importance of giving calves sufficient colostrum. Calves should receive at least 10% of their bodyweight in colostrum within six hours of birth. The amount of management variance in colostrum feeding is considerable, so step back and consider how you can improve the delivery of better colostrum to your calves.

What milk is fed? There are still farms who feed calves waste and antibiotic treated milk because they have it available and so it is ‘free’. To give heifers the best start in life without antibiotic resistance, waste milk should never be fed.

Some feed milk from the bulk tank, believing it is more cost effective than a milk replacer. Milk replacer costing £1,600/t, fed at 150g/litre, costs 24p/litre. How does this compare to your milk price?

Some farmers who use milk replacer will buy on price, not formulation, changing between brands. Cheaper milk powders tend to use lower quality ingredients and growth rates are lower. These farms will also not weigh powder accurately or mix consistently.

The final group of farmers research milk powder formulations and assess which supplier has the best product to allow high growth rates and is nutritionally closest to milk. They will then pay close attention to how the powder is fed to hit high growth rates.

Targets and monitoring – Pre-weaned calves can achieve high daily growth rates, often around 1kg/day, and are capable of doubling birth weight by weaning. What growth rates are you targeting and actually achieving? Setting targets and monitoring performance are key to ensuring heifers achieve the key milestones of 30% of mature weight at 6 months old and 55-60% of mature weight at service. Not achieving these goals will mean heifers will not enter the herd at the targeted 24 months old, will take longer to payback their rearing costs, and have a lower than anticipated lifetime yield.

By regular weighing of heifers you will pinpoint problems sooner, giving more opportunity to get growth back on track. The sooner you can react, the more cost effective it will be.

The diagram shows how we find different types of managers approach these key areas of calf rearing. Where does your approach sit and where are the opportunities to improve?