The importance of good transition nutrition to cow health is well understood by dairy producers. But a new Dairy Farmer survey, sponsored by ForFarmers, reveals they may be missing out on some wider ranging benefits which affect the performance and growth of every calf born and reared on-farm.
There is huge potential for dairy producers to improve the health and performance of their calves through better transition nutrition in their dams, according to ForFarmers.
Drawing on results of its Dairy Farmer survey, reported in last month’s issue, ForFarmers says there is scope to improve the development of the calf on UK farms, both before and after birth.
This will improve the calf’s health and growth, and help meet key targets, including calving at 24 months and increasing lifetime milk production.
But how has the company quantified the scope there is for improvement?
ForFarmers’ advice has been built around extensive industry research, which has demonstrated transition nutrition has a profound effect, not only on the quality of the cow’s colostrum, but also on the calf’s gastro-intestinal development in the last month of gestation.
Achieving success in these areas can have a significant effect on the calf’s health, growth and development in its first weeks of life.
This includes the all-important development of the parenchyma (or milk-producing) cells of the young female’s udder. In other words, the calf can be metabolically programmed for high milk production while it is still in the uterus and during the first weeks of life.
Added to this is the company’s own on-farm research, which has looked at transition nutrition in practice. Studying almost 2,000 transition cows in 50 herds across Germany, the Netherlands and the UK, it has investigated key areas of transition cow nutrition and their effects on the calf. These are:
It was found that calves born to cows on a low protein transition diet (less than 12% crude protein) had the highest risk of failure of passive transfer (FPT) of immunoglobulins (IgGs).
In other words, these calves had low antibody levels in their blood serum, which was measured as less than 10mg IgGs per ml serum. In fact, 12% more calves showed this failure than calves from cows fed 12-14% protein during transition (see Graph 1).
This means they had poorer immune status and, therefore, a reduced ability to resist infection.
At the other end of the scale, cows fed adequate crude protein (more than 14%) in their transition diet gave birth to calves which had a high immune status. In this study, some 10% more calves had a good immune status than in the middle (12-14% protein) group.
However, the study found it was not just protein in the transition diet which affected calf immunity. This was also improved by using a specific transition cow feeding system; either with anionic salts (DCAB), or with calcium binding technology (see Graph 2).
The graph shows none of the calves born to cows fed anionic salts were in the FPT group, while the largest proportion of those on DCAB were in the group with the highest immune status. Similarly, feeding the calcium binder to transition cows was reflected in better calf immunity.
But how did all of this impact on calf health and performance?
Calf scour is a widespread cause of lost performance across many farms and this was shown to improve through appropriate transition nutrition (see Graphs 3.1 and 3.2).
The graphs show a lower incidence of diarrhoea in the calves born to cows fed a DCAB ration and those fed the highest level of crude protein during transition.
Alison Ewing, ForFarmers technical development manager, says: “This tells us that it is vitally important to implement a specific transition cow feeding plan if farm infrastructure and labour allows.
“Focusing on key areas, such protein and milk fever control, can have a significant effect on lifetime performance of a calf.”
However, weight gain was a far more complex picture and provided a greater reflection of the management and husbandry practices on each farm.
Above-average farms achieved average growth rates of 834g/day, while farms below average achieved 545g/day.
Mrs Ewing says: “The study suggests farms focusing on key transition cow nutrition areas were giving their calves the best start in life. “This resulted in higher growth rates and was reflected in a large difference across farms and among calves in achieving growth potential.
“The significance of this difference is very important, as it will have a direct impact on the financial performance of the farm. We know from established research [Soberon and Van Amburg, 2013] that each 100g/day of extra growth rate during the milk period [first eight weeks] results in an increase of 155kg milk in the first lactation.
“This means the difference between the best and the worst in this study would be equivalent to 448 litres.”
Mrs Ewing says some clear messages to come from the study had reinforced existing knowledge and opened new routes to improvement.
“The importance of feeding high quality colostrum in a timely manner and of practising good hygiene and husbandry is well-known, and the growth rates and good health which can be achieved by doing so was demonstrated by this study.
“We know more about key focus areas of transition cow nutrition and the effect these can have on the calf.
“By getting these right, we can capitalise on the period in the calf’s life when it has the greatest scope for efficient growth. But more important still, we can help equip it with the immunity it needs to fight disease by improving the nutrition of its dam.
“We know that if we get the first part right, we will achieve the most efficient growth during the milk phase of the calf’s life: the short timeframe during which there is the greatest opportunity for efficient growth which will never be repeated later in life.
“Furthermore, if we set the calf up well, both in the uterus and in the first days of life, we can provide the metabolic programming she needs for good health and performance, which will help her meet targets all the way through her development and into her milk-producing years.