REARING OUTSTANDING dairy replacement heifers is viewed by many successful dairy businesses as an absolute non-negotiable.
So an appropriate contextual question to ask is, “How relevant is calf nutrition to sustainable business performance in a dairy business?”
If your business resonates with statements such as: “We aim to have a healthy, efficient and highly productive herd of cows that support a financially sustainable business”, then neo-natal calf nutrition will definitely be a key performance area of great interest to you.
Some of the most compelling research from the past decade has focused on the positive effects of neo-natal nutrition on lifetime milk solids production.
For dairy replacement heifers, it’s all about the development of specific mammary tissue (called parenchymal tissue) in the first months of life.
This has a direct correlation with how efficiently a heifer can convert kilograms of dry matter intake into kilograms of milk solids throughout her adult years.
In a nutshell, the way you feed your calves in the first months of life can become the difference between average or excellent financial performance in years to come.
Alternatively we could state: “If you care about your bottom line, pay careful attention to your calf rearing investment”.
Accelerated calf growth begins with optimal health targets, as prevention always trumps cure.
A health checklist should include the following protocols:
- All calves receive 3-4 litres of “gold” colostrum within the first 12 hours of life
- Well ventilated housing is sanitized regularly and dry bedding is maintained
- Milk or CMR is fed at body temperature at 10-12% of each calf’s bodyweight, with preference for twice daily feeding for a minimum of 8 weeks
- Pre- and pro-biotics are included in milk feeds, along with a coccidiostat
- Clean, fresh drinking water is available at all times
- Consistent feeding times are prioritized and feeding equipment is sanitized following usage
- Scouring calves are isolated and fed electrolytes as soon as they are observed
- A vaccination and drenching program is developed and implemented in consultation with your veterinary practitioner
The non-invasive way we can measure our success with regards to the development of the parenchymal tissue is via lean muscle mass and frame growth, as the same nutrients are required for each of these outcomes.
Weighing calves is a great starting point, however it is also beneficial to measure wither or hip height and hip width (target weights, heights and hip width for age and breed can be attained from the Dairy Australia website).
So the good news is that you don’t need a lab technician, just implement regular monitoring and recording practices.
In order to maintain optimum growth in those early months, we have to address the issue of rumen development.
While milk feeding provides the foundations of adequate calf nutrition, milk feeds bypass the rumen on the way to the abomasum (fourth segment of the gut, or “true” stomach).
So we need to offer some hard feeds in order to engage the rumen, with need to develop both the microbial population that become responsible for the digestion of ingested feeds and the epithelial cells that line the wall of the rumen, called papillae.
The role of the papillae is to provide a site of absorption for the organic acids that result from feeds being fermented in the rumen.
This is a case of bigger is better, as larger surface areas provide more sites of absorption. And remember, sugars and starches will have a greater effect on papillae than “scratch factor”.
Because young calves have relatively low levels of intake but have very high nutrient requirements for maintenance and growth, every mouthful of feed consumed must be of the highest nutrient density.
Calf Starter pellets or meals need to deliver high quality carbohydrates in the form of digestible starches and sugars to support blood glucose production.
They also need to provide the highest quality protein meals, such as soybean and canola meals, to provide the amino acids that in combination with blood glucose are essential for muscle and frame growth.
Calcium to phosphorus ratios in the range of 1.5 -2:1 will underpin skeletal development, then rumen buffers and live yeast and yeast cultures aid in stabilizing rumen pH which supports feed intake.
All of the B group vitamins should be added, as pre-ruminants cannot synthesis their own and they are essential to many energy pathways.
Vitamins A, D & E, along with all of the essential trace minerals then aid in the synthesis of numerous enzymatic processes and support immune status.
Quality nutrition and management practices support healthy, well grown replacement dairy heifers that have increased feed conversion efficiency capability over their lifetime.
This represents an incredible investment opportunity for the future of your dairy business.
• Pip Gale is Head of Nutrition and Technical Services with CopRice.