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Rearing tips from UK's first Calf Signals training event

Agricultural suppliers Wynnstay and independent dairy consultant Owen Atkinson have teamed up to run a series of Calf Signals training days, the first of their kind in the UK. Louise Hartley reports.

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Some 15 dairy and beef farmers attended the Calf Signals training day, hosted by Geoff and John Woodhouse, Bolden Farm, Lancaster.


Cheshire vet Owen Atkinson and Wynnstay calf specialist Rebecca Richards guided farmers through the six phases of heifer rearing, with top tips and experiences being shared.


Phase one: Preparing for birth (22 to 24 months)

Phase one: Preparing for birth (22 to 24 months)

To minimise stress on both cow and calf and to aid colostrum management, both Mr Atkinson and Miss Richards advocated snatch calving.


When a calf is born the gut is ‘open’, allowing colostrum anti-bodies to quickly enter the blood stream, but also means the calf is susceptible to infection via the mouth.

Mr Atkinson said: “The gut ‘closes’ over a period of time, usually ‘open’ for the first six hours and closing over the next 48 hours. Rate of closure depends on the level of protein entering the gut and so the sooner the calf is fed, the quicker the gut will be stimulated to close. This is where difficulties occur.


“If left to suckle on the cow, the calf’s gut could close before the main colostrum feed was given. It takes a calf 20 minutes of continual sucking to consume four litres of colostrum, something which newborn calves can rarely do in the first few hours of life as they are still weak.


“If removed straight away in to a clean individual pen [even if this means colostrum intake is delayed slightly] giving the full four-litre feed when the calf’s gut is still open will be more beneficial.

“A four-litre colostrum feed takes a long time to digest, even up to 20 hours, so, once fed, relax and wait until the calf becomes hungry again.”


Both experts agreed ideally calves should be removed within an hour of birth after it had been licked.


Ideally the cow should also be milked as quickly as possible within the first few hours of birth and not to leave the cow until the next milking, due to the dilution effect.


Any cow giving eight to nine litres of colostrum in the first milking was likely to have poor quality because of the dilution effect. Milking the cow before calving, especially if it was leaking colostrum was accepted practice.


Miss Richard said mobile milking units were a great piece of kit to invest in, allowing the cow to be milked in the calving pen, reducing stress and making the colostrum harvest easier. The unit could also be properly cleaned and disinfected.

She also advised farmers not to leave fresh colostrum sitting in the dairy, as it doubled in bacteria every 20 minutes, but either to feed the calf straight away or freeze it.


Many farmers agreed colostrum bags were a worthwhile investment, with the colostrum defrosting quicker and being easier to store than milk bottles or ice cream tubs. Putting the bag of frozen colostrum in the dishwasher, running at 60degC for one hour, was a defrosting tip given by one farmer.


If using colostrometers, Mr Atkinson reminded farmers readings could be distorted by colostrum temperature. He said they were designed to work with luke warm colostrum, about 22degC, so could be slightly inaccurate if it was too hot or cold milk. He did not, however advise artificially cooling colostrum for this purpose.


Phase two: Cuddling (0 to 3 months)

Phase two: Cuddling (0 to 3 months)

The days of feeding calves two litres of milk twice-a-day were long gone, agreed both experts.


Calves should be gaining 0.8kg per day to be big enough to calve down at 24 months old, said Miss Richards, who encouraged farmers to feed 150g per litre, building up to a six-litre feed of 900g milk replacer per day.


“Up to six weeks old the feed conversion ratio for a calf is 1:1, which reduces from then on, so it is crucial to feed as much as possible in the early weeks of life. Calves should definitely be doubling their birth weight by weaning, with some farms now successfully pushing calves to triple their birth weight by weaning at nine to 10 weeks.”


Spending money on good quality milk replacement powder was also advocated, with skim-based power needing to be at least 30 per cent skim.


Calf jackets during this stage was a no-brainer considering the economic pay back, said both experts and many farmers agreed.

Miss Richards said: “Some jackets are made of scuba-like material so can put straight on to a wet calf and kept on until weaning. Remember to stagger their removal with weaning so the calf is not shocked at once and make sure the chest strap of the jacket is thick, to keep the vital organs covered.”


Key consideration


Ensuring the pen or feeding system is not over-crowded was also a key consideration – if feeding through an automatic feeder, no more than 20 calves per teat was advised.


Try not to have straw around the feeding station, by placing feeders/teat behind a step, railway sleeper or concrete plinth to separate it from the bedding and keep the area clean and well drained, said Mr Atkinson.

At weaning, intakes should be at 1.5kg per day, with a minimum of 1kg, said Miss Richard.


“Coarse mix is a brilliant way to start calves on concentrates, as they tend to eat it a few days easier than nuts. But after a short while calves will start to sort the ration, jeopardising nutritional balance.”


Miss Richards suggested feeding coarse mix for a few days, then mixing in nuts, quickly removing the coarse mix completely.

“Coarse mix is more expensive, but has exactly the same nutritional quality as the nut,” she said.


One farmer said they had recently moved on to bigger 6mm nuts and had seen intakes shoot up as a result.

“Calves are teething and like a big nut to bite in to,” explained Miss Richards.


Phase three and four: Protecting (3 to 6 months) and Growing (6 to 13 months)

Phase three and four: Protecting (3 to 6 months) and Growing (6 to 13 months)

Avoiding checks in growth and health is the priority at this stage.


An easy way to monitor growth rates was by using a weigh band, said Mr Atkinson.


“Using a weigh band to measure chest circumference allows you to determine the weight of a calf. It is not rocket science, is less cumbersome than using a crush and can be done quickly.”


Encouraging roughage intake as well as concentrates is also key during these stages, said Miss Richards.


“Roughage should be given in straw form – it provides scratch factor and helps churn concentrate around in the rumen, like a pitch fork. Do not rely on straw in bedding as it soon gets covered in urine and manure.


“I would also discourage the feeding of hay. Although it is more palatable than straw and intakes might be higher, the calf’s rumen is not fully developed and will struggle to digest it. Feeding hay can often result in bloated ‘hay bellies’ and reduced concentrate intakes.”


Phase five: Pregnant (13-15 months)

Phase five: Pregnant (13-15 months)

If the aim is to calve heifers averaging 24 months, you must start bulling at 13 months and be pushing heifers to grow as much as possible up to this point, advised Mr Atkinson.


“In practice more than 60 per cent of heifers should have had at least one serve by 15 months old,” he said.


“Ideally, heifers should calve down at 85 per cent of their mature body weight after calving (remember not to include the unborn calf’s weight) – about 585kg for a Holstein.


“Weight at bulling should be about 370kg for a Holstein, but a more practical service indicator is height.”


Both Mr Atkinson and Miss Richards agreed the optimal minimal whither height for serving a heifer was 125cm (49in), which came as a surprise to many of the farmers.


Mr Atkinson said: “The 125cm mark is not as high as you might have thought but this is the ideal height to start bulling Holstein heifers. A 127cm mark would acceptable if you prefer your heifers to have more growth.”

Find out where 125cm (49in) is on you, advised Miss Richards.


“Too many farmers use their own eyes to gauge if a heifer is big enough, but the identification of bulling heifers can be made much easier by using visual aids,” she said.


“Draw a line on the wall in the cubicles and use this as a yard stick.”


Phase six: Ripening (15-22 months)

Phase six: Ripening (15-22 months)

This stage is all about keeping the heifer growing and preparing it for life in the herd.


Feeding is critical to make sure heifers are not too fat at calving, said Mr Atkinson.


One farmer explained how feeding ground straw had helped him control his heifer’s body condition.


Look after the mineral levels continued Mr Atkinson.


“The pregnant and ripening stages are often where heifers miss out on minerals, especially Vitamin E, which has a direct effect on colostrum quality, so a special dry cow mineral might be advised.


“Make sure they are cubicle trained and are integrated properly with the dry cows, moving into the dry group at least three weeks pre-calving – preferably more.


“Finally perform a hoof check, evidence from Holland suggests this reduces lameness for the rest of the heifer’s life.”


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